Two recent tragic events highlight the error in jumping to conclusions until all the facts are well known. The shooting of teenager Trayvon Martin in Florida appeared to be a simple case where a white vigilante shot and killed a black youth prowling an upscale neighborhood. Even President Obama declared that if he had had a son, he would have looked like Trayvon. In the second case, Mohammad Merah, dubbed an Al Qaeda fanatic, murdered seven people including 4 Jews in Toulouse and was finally gunned down after a 32 hour siege with hundreds of police. President Sarkozy condemned the killer promising to pass stricter laws against terrorists and religious fanatics. Both President Obama and President Sarkozy, it should be noted, are in the midst of election campaigns.
The murder near Orlando involved George Zimmerman patrolling a neighborhood as a volunteer watch captain authorized by the Stand Your Ground law which extends the concept of self-defense. It was originally said that Martin was totally innocent, gunned down by an overzealous racist. Further details, according to a local newspaper, raised serious questions about the character of the youth with witnesses testifying that it was Martin who assaulted Zimmerman and that Zimmerman shot Martin in legitimate self-defense. The rather emotional response to the initial story by the President reminded many of his statement in July 2009 that the police had acted stupidly in arresting Harvard Professor Henry Gates when he was trying to enter his own house without his keys.
In Toulouse, the initial portrait of the gunman was of a marginal Frenchman of Algerian descent who had been trained in French mosques and then Afghanistan and Pakistan subsequently to return to France to shoot Jews outside a synagogue. Religious leaders condemned the killings and called for greater tolerance and dialogue among faiths. Further details have shown that Mohammad Merah was not the religious fanatic portrayed - he had in fact shot in cold blood 3 Muslims who served in France's armed forces as well as 4 Jews - but that he acted alone against the French presence in Afghanistan, a political not religious situation. President Sarkozy himself said later on that Merah had no Al Qaeda terror network links, but was an unhinged "monster".
The dictum "all are innocent until proven guilty" is often overshadowed by prejudices fueled by simplistic narratives. In the heat of campaigns snap judgments are also easily made exacerbated by the current political polarization. The killings in Florida and France are tragic, and the rush to judgments only magnify the tragedies, becoming part of a spiral of missed comprehension.