In light of the most recent shootings in Baton Rouge, the latest in a spate of back-and-forth shootings between civilians and police, it’s worth taking a look at the South Park episode “World War Zimmerman,” originally aired October 9, 2013, not quite four months after George Zimmerman was acquitted of the murder of Trayvon Martin the previous July. The episode not only argues that there is a marked difference in the way both society and the government react to violence against different racial demographics (more specifically that white victims of violence receive justice while black victims of violence are ignored), but proves FDR’s old adage that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” and even more specifically, that fear-based legislation like “stand-your-ground” laws end up causing more destruction than they prevent. The episode’s plot combines the Zimmerman acquittal with the Brad Pitt zombie movie World War Z (released June 21, 2013). While some have claimed that this reference is too dated, the narrative’s use of repeated plane crashes, the Patient-Zero concept, and Cartman’s emulation of Brad Pitt’s character are precisely what make it such an insightful commentary about how this cycle of fear and violence we’re currently stuck in might have started.
The episode begins with Cartman being uncharacteristically nice to Token Black, trying to get Token to “fist bump” him. Cartman then disrupts class when he screams in his sleep, accusing Token of eating his family. The school counselor Mr. Mackey tells Eric to write a poem to express his feelings to Token to resolve Eric’s apparent nightmares; Cartman’s poem implores Token not to blame him for the shooting of Trayvon Martin. We then see Eric’s nightmare: Eric is Brad Pitt, the hero of World War Z, being an upstanding loving family man when news of George Zimmerman’s acquittal is announced, at which point many “outraged” black people “go totally nanners,” attacking Eric’s family’s car in a zombie-like horde. Awake, Eric raps his poem at a school assembly. When Token expresses his frustration that everyone is listening to his racist nonsense, Eric flees, screaming that an outbreak is starting. He dresses himself as Brad Pitt and hijacks a plane, declaring to everyone aboard that Denver and all major cities have now been compromised. Eric’s panicked reaction to a black passenger aboard the plane causes everyone else to panic, which causes the plane to crash. Eric (and the random woman he’s enlisted to help him) buy a rifle to try to stop the outbreak’s spread, only to learn that the law will prevent them from shooting people unless they’re in a state with a stand-your-ground law. Believing Zimmerman is a version of “Patient Zero”–that all of this starts with him–Eric goes to Florida to kill Zimmerman (crashing another plan along the way) by disguising himself as a black kid and getting Zimmerman to shoot him just as government officials are enlisting Zimmerman to “do what he does best” and “shoot a young African American man,” the other Patient Zero, Token. The officials declare Zimmerman a hero when he shoots the “young African American man,” but when they see Cartman is white, Zimmerman is declared guilty and electrocuted by the state within two seconds. Cartman returns home, tricks Token into (almost) stepping inside the circle he’s spray-painted around himself by claiming he wants to “fist bump” to settle their differences, and shoots him. They then return to Mr. Mackey’s office, where, when Token expresses his frustration at what’s happened, Eric once again flees and crashes another plane.
The plane crashes, three of them, convincingly represent the cycle of fear and violence we as a society have gotten ourselves into. Eric crashes one every time he flees in panic in response to a reaction to Token that he has absurdly misinterpreted. He’s misinterpreted the whole situation. Everything begins in the episode with his nightmares–without them, the rest of the events in the episode would not have happened. The nightmares come from his fear. His fear is based on nothing–Token is represented here as harmless. When Cartman is telling Token not to blame him in his poem, he’s blaming Token for blaming him, so he’s doing the very thing he’s accusing Token of–preemptive blaming/judging of someone for something they didn’t actually do. Cartman’s fear is supposedly in response to violence, but instead Cartman’s fear is causing the violence–as represented here by the plane crashes. That the episode ends with the third of these plane crashes indicates that they will just continue; every time Token expresses his frustration at Cartman’s ignorant fear-based reaction, Cartman will react in fear and cause a plane crash, that Token will then complain about, causing Eric to flee in fear… This ending would seem to argue, perhaps bleakly, that there’s no end to this cycle of fear and violence once it’s started. And looking at where we are three years later, the writers would seem to have predicted this phenomenon accurately. In the wake of a police shooting, fear escalates on both sides, among police and in black communities, inciting reactions that then cause more violence that cause more fear…. Not only that, but the shooters in the Dallas and Baton Rouge shootings, who killed eight policemen between them, were military veterans, trained to kill by their own government–something designed for protection subverted for destructive purposes.
Showing how things designed for protection can end up causing more destruction than the very things they were designed to protect against is a big part of what the plot shows through its use of the “Patient Zero” trope. Cartman initially thinks Token is Patient Zero, then thinks that Zimmerman is also a form of a Patient Zero, someone the whole thing starts with–someone whose eradication will thus eradicate the problem. We see at the end of the episode with the final (but not really final) plane crash that killing Zimmerman does not in fact solve the problem (though Cartman might be right that there’s more than one Patient Zero). Other events in the episode reveal what the problem really is.
Everything in the episode starts with Cartman’s groundless fear, which is the true contagion or outbreak, as we see it spread to the government, agents for whom pick up his “Patient Zero” sketch of Token and immediately, absurdly, take what’s obviously a child’s drawing (as seen above) for evidence of an outbreak. You could argue that Martin’s shooting starts with Zimmerman’s fear, but much can also be traced back to the stand-your-ground law, which is what the Zimmerman verdict ultimately depended on. If Martin was threatening Zimmerman’s personal space, Zimmerman legally had the right to kill him; if not, he’s guilty of murder. The episode’s plot presents the possibility of how the stand-your-ground law, designed, with good intentions, for protection, can easily be manipulated in such a way as to be used against those it was designed to protect (whether or not you believe that Zimmerman specifically manipulated this law or not). Eric tricked Token into entering his personal space; he was the malicious attacker, but it’s his word against the victim’s (and often in such stand-your-ground scenarios, the victim might not survive to give his word), and Cartman claims that Token is the malicious attacker. And even worse, Cartman legitimately does believe that it’s Token who’s the malicious threat to humanity, when he’s the one causing all the destruction (see the above plane crashes).
If the episode persuasively presents the stand-your-ground law as a possible origin, or Patient Zero, for our current seemingly inescapable cycle of fear and violence, Eric’s emulation of World War Z’s hero gives us another possible Patient Zero. The AV Club review feared that “the [World War Z] reference is on the line of feeling dated already,” but if the Trayvon Martin shooting is a landmark cultural-historical event that many might look back on as the start of this cycle of shootings inflamed by race-based politics, then what was going on in pop culture at that time might be more than mere coincidence–might be, in fact, extremely relevant. If the cycle of needless destruction in the episode all starts with Cartman’s fears, the fears start with his hero-complex, which the episode shows to be a product of hollow character types promoted by Hollywood action movies. The movie, as parodied in the episode, presents the Brad Pitt-Cartman character as a loving family man, and for this we are to believe him a “good” man. But it’s his attempts to save the world, in the South Park version at least, that cause far more destruction than the thing he’s saving it from, which turns out to be nothing. In World War Z the threat is “real,” but is the hero? Trey Parker and Matt Stone point out in their creator commentary on the episode that this loving family man is only willing to pitch in and help out with the rest of humanity when his family is directly threatened; the man the movie wants us to think “good” is, viewed from a more objective standpoint outside the film, selfish, unwilling to help others in need unless he has a personal reason to. Through Cartman’s emulation of the the hero of World War Z being the real Patient Zero, the episode presents the possibility that the emulation of heroes with what turn out to be questionable value systems that we see so often in the movies could be playing its own part in the cycle of fear and violence we’re experiencing. The desire to be a hero can be as dangerous as whatever force the hero is trying to save us from. As New Yorker writer Jelani Cobb puts it, “The Dallas shooting revealed the bankruptcy of the good-guy-with-a-gun theory.” We can’t have the hero save us, after all, without something terrible to combat. Gotham often seems more dangerous with Batman in it.
Parker and Stone’s predictions of the destruction that fear-based hero worship can cause, as played out in the episode’s plane crashes, Patient Zero references, and Cartman’s Brad-Pitt copying, aren’t overexaggerated predictions anymore. As another New Yorker writer, Benjamin Wallace-Wells, recently put it in an article exploring the topic,
Within the ongoing story about race and killings by police there has been, from the beginning, a second story, about fear. For the shooters themselves, fear has been essential to their legal defense; it has also been, in a more basic way, their explanation.