It has all the feel of a Twilight Zone episode, only in a setting that is unmistakably contemporary. The nightmare is framed by this setting, a house in a gated community. It could be a very posh house, like the one where Oscar Pistorious lived and admits he shot to death his girlfriend, the model Reeva Steenkamp, last week in South Africa [read the Guardian's coverage here]; or a more middle class one, like the South Florida community where George Zimmerman shot Trayvon Martin to death in 2012 [read the New York Times summary here].
Whatever you make of either mans’ story — whether they are liars, self deceivers, or simply loose cogs — their narratives belong to what David Garland called the “common sense” of “high crime societies.” Their justification/excuse defenses turn on the reasonableness of responding to uncertainty with lethal violence, a reasonableness in turn anchored in the subjective experience of crime and fear of crime. As Pistorius’ defense statement read by his lawyers in court yesterday put it:
“I am acutely aware of violent crime being committed by intruders entering homes,” he said. “I have received death threats before. I have also been a victim of violence and of burglaries before. For that reason I kept my firearm, a 9 mm Parabellum, underneath my bed when I went to bed at night.”
It is a nightmare that anyone who has lived in late modern society can recreate at will, from a thousand half-remembered films or TV scripts if not from personal experience. It’s the reason that lots of people you know and love, maybe you, too, keep a 9mm gun next to the bed.
What makes their nightmare complete is that even by their own accounts they killed people who posed no threat to them, in a place they chose to be in large part to keep them safe from crime. And now they face the possibility of the ultimate contradiction in our “culture of control” (thanks again to Garland for the term), a long sentence of imprisonment during which they are likely to be exposed to cruel, inhuman, and degrading circumstances (South African law at least is more proactive in protecting Pistorius against that, although I wouldn’t want to bet on its practical implementation).
Gated communities promise to wrap consumers in an extra layer of security unprovided by the state and mutual self help of citizens. But once embedded in such an environment, insecurity got worst. George Zimmerman felt the need to become his own vigilante patrol officer within the gates, and Oscar Pistorius kept himself armed against the burglars in his mind. Again Pistorius’ narrative, whether genuine or artfully contrived, speaks to (and shows us) the way our security measures implode on us, removing some threats so our minds can focus on others:
“I heard a noise and realised that someone was in the bathroom. I felt a sense of terror rushing over me. There are no burglar bars across the bathroom window and I knew that contractors who worked at my house had left the ladders outside.”
The gates around his house only made the absence of gates on his windows a vulnerability. The hired men who labored to make his luxury home even more secure and comfortable opened yet more pathways for crime.
We should not pity Oscar Pistorius or George Zimmerman, at least not more than their victims. But if we fail to recognize their nightmare as ours, we can expect more victims.
Cross-posted from Jonathan Simon’s blog, Governing Through Crime.