Demonstrators attend a protest march in Times Square in response...

Demonstrators attend a protest march in Times Square in response to the not-guilty verdict in the trial of George Zimmerman, on trial for the killing of Trayvon Martin. (July 14, 2013) Credit: Charles Eckert

In Times Square late Sunday night, hundreds of protesters gathered to vent angrily about the acquittal of George Zimmerman, the pistol-packing neighborhood watch volunteer who shot an unarmed black teenager named Trayvon Martin last year in a scuffle whose details are murky to this day.

While gut-wrenchingly furious, most of the protesters I saw interviewed managed to maintain their poise. "We're not here to say specifically, ‘George Zimmerman should have been guilty,’ one of them told a reporter, but something's wrong with our society and our world in general when these types of things are able to happen."

No kidding. But barring a Justice Department deus ex machina that swings down from the heavens with trumpets blaring to save the day, I'm guessing Zimmerman will remain a free -- if harried -- man for the rest of his days.

"Trials, for better of worse, are not morality plays," Florida defense lawyer Michael Band told The New York Times.

But wait. I think this trial is. It's a morality play because so many Americans have chosen to interpret it that way. Conservatives see it as holy vindication. Liberals see it as Exhibit A for America's chronic inability to imagine life through the eyes of blacks and other minorities.

In one smoldering package, the Zimmerman psychodrama offers a full menu of truths -- big ones and little ones. Little truths? A weak prosecution case, lapses in the initial investigation, and a scuffle no one saw. They made a conviction hard to get.

Then there were greater truths -- the morality play: Whatever the difficulties in building a case, an unarmed black teen was killed by a self-appointed neighborhood-watch buff who had been warned by a police dispatcher to back off. I think it's no coincidence that all of this happened in a state that seems to encourage its citizens to carry firearms, and when they're in a pinch, to err on the side of pulling the trigger.

Florida's stand-your-ground law says people are allowed to defend themselves with force if they feel threatened in their home, business, car or a place where they "have a legal right to be." Feel threatened? Even when the armed person is the one who picked the fight? It's an invitation to vigilantism.

To be fair, Zimmerman didn't invoke this law during this trial. But it was a factor in the initial reluctance of local police to aggressively investigate his case.

The United States has agonized for its entire existence -- 237 years -- over an excruciating problem with race. We've made incredible progress. But like a persistent virus, it always returns. On Saturday it made a blockbuster appearance.

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