Frank Rich on the National Circus: National Conversations Can’t Fix What Killed Trayvon

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Photo: Mario Tama/2013 Getty Images

Every week, New York Magazine writer-at-large Frank Rich talks with contributor Eric Benson about the biggest stories in politics and culture. This week: George Zimmerman goes free, Rolling Stone's cover gets condemned, and the Senate cheers its bipartisanship.

George Zimmerman’s acquittal in the killing of Trayvon Martin enraged more than it surprised, prompting a lot of commentary on racial profiling and the elusiveness of equality in America. You tackled these issues last year in an essay on the Tony-winning play Clybourne Park, concluding that, even with major legislative victories for civil rights and a black president in the White House, there was "no solution in sight." How has the Martin verdict affected your thinking on race relations, and how we can improve?
This entire story is both a tragedy and a travesty. Coming in the immediate aftermath of the Supreme Court’s maiming of the Voting Rights Act, it is another indicator that something is rotten at the heart of American justice. The fault here is not with a jury that may have been behaving rationally within the legal parameters of the case. The fault is with a system that didn’t even investigate the death of an unarmed black teenager or make an arrest until weeks after the fact — and then only after national public and media outcry. The fault is with laws that allowed Zimmerman to carry a concealed weapon and take “justice” into his own hands. The fault is with a legal process that could field a nearly all-white jury in a state with Florida’s racial history in the year 2013. How will this improve? Clearly electing an African-American president has only stirred up racial animus more; Obama had only to win election in 2008 to set off a surge of gun-buying in the country even as the defeated vice-presidential nominee of the nearly all-white GOP was calling for her angry fans to reload. We have nominally “liberal” white pundits suggesting that Trayvon Martin might be alive if he had only not shown the poor taste of wearing a hoodie indistinguishable from that worn by half the boys in his age group in the country (and, as many have pointed out, by Mark Zuckerberg, too). Bruce Norris’s Clybourne Park, in which the white and black characters debate and insult each other to a standoff, is more timely than ever. It shows what a farce it is when various leaders call for “a national conversation on race” every time there’s a horror story like this. We’ve had that conversation. It’s gotten us nowhere. My hope is that the rank injustices that afflict minorities in America — from the attempts at voter suppression to the xenophobic demonization of Latino immigrants to the many legal blights like this case — will stir up strong and sustained political action from those affected and the countless other Americans who believe in full equality under the law.

Rolling Stone's latest cover, featuring a photograph of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, has been widely condemned for making the Boston bomber look like a celebrity. Do you think there's any validity to that claim?
None. Even by the standards of phony post-9/11 outrages, this one is idiotic. And if you don’t believe me that idiots are involved, do note that one blog that has made a cause of vilifying the Rolling Stone cover, Michelle Malkin’s Twitchy, cites as allies three members of the eighties boys band New Kids on the Block, Justin Bieber’s bodyguard, and James Van Der Beek, an actor who has otherwise been near-invisible since Dawson’s Creek was canceled a decade ago. (Can Charlie Sheen be far behind?) What are these idiots thinking? That because Tsarnaev looked like a cute dude and “a celebrity” (which he is, by the way, as is George Zimmerman), impressionable American kids will enlist with Al Qaeda? That publishing an article about the psyche of a mass murderer somehow dishonors those he murdered? The whole point of the piece is that Tsarnaev didn’t look or act like a terrorist in an FBI mug shot but was a “golden person” to those who knew him — “seamless, like a billiard ball,” in the words of his high-school wrestling coach in Cambridge. That’s how he got away with it even in our overweening surveillance state. How he fooled everyone is one thing of value we might learn if anything remotely positive is to come out of his and his brother’s horrific crime. No piece of journalism has shed more light on that question to date than this article by Janet Reitman, who was also the fearless author of the first major book to crack open Scientology. The more readers who are tempted to dig into this exemplary exercise in long-form journalism (11,000 words) by the Rolling Stone cover, the better. Those pandering politicians and merchants who are encouraging readers to shun the magazine or barring it altogether — Boston mayor Thomas Menino, Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick, the pharmacy chain CVS — are, as they used to say in the Bush era, on the side of the terrorists. 

The Senate's latest bout of filibuster brinksmanship ended, predictably, with the filibuster intact and whispers of a "new spirit of bipartisan cooperation" spreading through the halls of the Capitol. Did the Senate miss its latest best chance at reforming its sclerotic rules?
We heard this happy talk about Congress’s new stirrings of bipartisan cooperation before — when gun-control legislation was allowed to come to a vote in the Senate (where it died) and when an immigration bill passed in the Senate (to await its death in the House). This deal didn’t reform the filibuster at all; it was a temporary panacea so that Obama administration appointees who never should have been held up in the first place could be belatedly approved. Obstruction by filibuster remains the law of the Senate, and hence an impediment to laws being passed by the Senate. Harry Reid had an historical opportunity and whiffed.

Liz Cheney, daughter of you-know-who, has announced she is running for Senate in Wyoming, contesting a seat currently occupied by the reliably conservative Republican Mike Enzi. Politico published ten stories yesterday on Cheney's announcement and its resultant shockwaves. But really, Cheney name recognition aside, should anyone outside of Wyoming give a damn?
Serious people, I guess, shouldn’t give a damn since this Senate seat is safely Republican no matter what. But it is nonetheless good news for Democrats who were bummed out by the impending exit of Michele Bachmann. Liz Cheney is another camera-hogging zealot capable of saying anything: It took her only 24 hours to insult Enzi, a hale-and-healthy 69-year-old, as being “confused” (as in senile). And since Enzi is one of the most right-wing members of the Senate, imagine what she’s going to have to come up with to get to his right. She will soon be following in Dad’s footsteps and, rhetorically at least, repeatedly shooting her opponent in the face.