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When fear is enough to take someone's life

Fear. You could smell fear all over the story of Trayvon Martin.

Fear in the call that George Zimmerman, self-appointed neighborhood watchman, placed to the 911 dispatcher about a suspicious figure "looking about" in his gated community.

Fear in the phone conversation Trayvon had at the same time with his girlfriend, saying that a man was following him and that he'd put his hoodie on.

Fear in the agonized pleas recorded in a neighbor's 911 call as Trayvon and Zimmerman apparently struggled.

Fear of the nameless, faceless menace of "you shouldn't be here." It's the fear that makes someone appoint himself neighborhood watchman in the first place, to make sure nothing out of place shows up. Fear that what you don't know will hurt you.

Fear, followed by rage.

Trayvon Martin looked younger than his 17 years. He was carrying iced tea and Skittles. Zimmerman must have been terrifying -- larger, older, armed. Instead, Zimmerman was, by his own account, terrified. He pursued, shot and killed Trayvon.

Fortunately for the fearful, Florida's Stand Your Ground law has their interests at heart. To kill someone, you need not prove that he or she intended you harm. All you need to prove is a real and reasonable fear that your life is in danger.

But how many fears are reasonable? These days we're more frightened of public speaking than drowning, of spiders than driving. Florida law says that force is justified if someone "reasonably believes that such force is necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm." In a word -- fear. If my fear is big enough, it can outweigh your life.

This law terrifies me. I don't suppose I can shoot it?

To Zimmerman, the figure in the hoodie was a nameless, faceless menace.

But he wasn't. His name was Trayvon Martin, "Slimm" or "Tray" to his friends. He wanted to be an engineer, the stories report. He was taking flying lessons. He got As and Bs and was majoring, said his teacher, in cheerfulness.

Tom Wolfe notes in "The Bonfire of the Vanities" that every kid who dies unjustly and too early retroactively transforms into an honor student with presidential aspirations. This is not quite fair to a kid's memory, but it is the debt we owe the dead. Dead children, in particular, carry with them the burden of our outsize hopes.

And hope can cast shadows as massive and false as those cast by fear.

We live in a terrified age. You can't ride a bicycle without a helmet. You can't knock on your neighbor's door. You can't talk to strangers online because people you don't know are bad and dangerous.

Nice people don't harbor racism these days. They have localized fear, fear of life outside the gates. You go here. We'll go there. That is your street. This is my street. That is your school. This is my school. Stay where you don't look out of place to Zimmerman, and you'll be safe.

Maybe the world is worse than it used to be. Certainly the faceless menace of the rapist, the home invader, the terrorist, the child molester looms more threateningly than ever. But even in the first of these categories, the statistics belie the image. Most people know their attackers. But the faceless menace is easier to fear. The unknown is so much more frightening.

"I was afraid of him," you say. "I was entitled to shoot. You never know what might have happened if I hadn't."

If Zimmerman hadn't, there would be one more face in the halls at Dr. Michael M. Krop High School in Miami, Fla. And after that, who knows?

Trayvon wasn't a saint or an allegory. According to the Miami Herald, he had been suspended from school three times. Neither was he a faceless menace. He was an aggressively normal kid, a threateningly typical teen.

This is where fear takes us, and it's a horrible place.

The Justice Department is investigating, after weeks of local law enforcement's apparent bungling and failure to press charges. But the standards for prosecuting someone for hate crimes are some of the highest set by law. (Trayvon was African-American; Zimmerman is Hispanic.) The standards for shooting someone? In Florida, fear is enough.