Matthew Part II: The nature of being human

An unexamined life is not worth living
Socrates – 399 B.C.

Nothing is so difficult as not deceiving oneself.
Ludwig Wittgenstein – 1938

(This is a continuation of “Matthew Part I: What is Justice.”  Looking for Matthew, a book of poems by Bill Denham written about his response to Matthew’s death was published by Apocryphile Press in Berkeley, CA in 2012. “O Felix culpa! O light from darkness” was included in this book.)

All three defense attorneys responded positively to my inquiry, expressing sorrow for my loss. I thanked them for that expression but stated my current and long-time desire to explore ways to turn this tragic mistake into something positive.

I have sent each of them copies of Looking for Matthew.

I have been counseled that the pace of such litigation is glacial, at best, and that the capital charges—the death penalty—in the indictment, may never be sought. Regardless, I am hopeful that at some distant point in time that I will be able to share Matthew’s story with Luis, Eddie, and Josue and just maybe I will be able to figure out some way for us to be in contact with each other.

In my research, reading about various cases on the Death Penalty Information Center website ( and reading books like Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy, I was surprised but pleased to discover that the Justice Department provides the funding for an adequate defense—meaning an examination of the accused’s life and family for three generations back—how much funding and how that level of funding compares with the federal funding for prosecutors—I didn’t discover.

But, let us return to our consideration of the nature of justice.

To me, it looks like the retributive system of justice, especially in capital cases, is based upon making a distinction between the perpetrator and the victim, based upon erasing what they have in common, their sameness, their essential humanity, robbing both of that fundamental truth—we are all human beings. From the Judeo-Christian perspective, we are all made in the image of God—perpetrator and victim. When this truth is denied, we are unable to seek justice. We are limited. We limit ourselves. And from this limited place we can only define justice as retribution—an eye for an eye—as revenge, as punishment for the wrong doer. In capital cases that punishment becomes state-sanctioned-murder, that is, the legal killing of another human being.

I am reminded here of a powerful poem by DH Lawrence:

“I am not a mechanism, an assembly of various sections.
And it is not because the mechanism is working wrongly that I am ill.
I am ill because of wounds to the soul, to the deep emotional self
and wounds to the soul take a long, long time, only time can help
and patience, and a certain difficult repentance,
long, difficult repentance, realisation of life’s mistake, and the freeing oneself
from the endless repetition of the mistake
which mankind at large has chosen to sanctify.

D. H. Lawrence from The Collected Works of D. H. Lawrence

To me, state-sanctioned-murder and war are the mistakes that “mankind at large has chosen to sanctify.” And both seem to be based upon separating ourselves from the perpetrator or from the enemy, elevating ourselves and denigrating the other, making them into something other than a human being—which is how we see ourselves. We see ourselves as a person, a human being and, in whatever ways we decide to define the perpetrator or the enemy, we see them as something other than a human being, other than ourselves. We make them into “the other” and feel justified in taking their life.

We profess ignorance and shock, asking, “How could anyone do this horrible act?” Or “how could this group of people not value the sanctity of human life?” They are so different from us, from me.

Oh, how we speak, at such times, out of both sides of our mouth.

Yet this activity seems to be universally human—we project those dark parts of ourselves, that we are unable or unwilling to examine or even to acknowledge, onto another person or onto a group of people, relieving ourselves of the necessity of examining our deepest and innermost fears and dark urges, thereby living what Plato calls “the unexamined life.” Such an unexamined life contributes to attitudes of self-justification, of self-righteousness, which is a “self-deception”, to use Wittgenstein’s term, a failure to see that we are all alike—all equally capable of doing great good and of doing great harm—and, as he says, “nothing is so difficult as not deceiving oneself.”

This is the nature of being human.

This must be the starting point of any consideration of justice.

Justice, I believe, must come from an honest and a humble place. It must incorporate an acceptance of each person’s humanity, regardless of the harm that has been perpetrated. If we return, then, to Valerie Kaur’s metaphor of the darkness of the womb and if we accept that each person involved in the killing of Matthew and Noel—all three of the accused perpetrators and all of the survivors—are all human beings—we must try to determine what would be a just outcome for each individual. If those accused of the murder, are, in fact, guilty, what do they need to do to help themselves restore their own humanity, which was lost even before they took another’s life? How can they restore themselves? How can they make recompense? And for those of us who were close to the victims, what are our individual needs relative to the loss of Matthew or of Noel?


O, Felix culpa! Oh, light from Darkness!

In a split second,            
            as is always the case,
            even as internal growth          
            creeps as slowly           
            as deep time, itself,           
            my life changed forever           
            and stayed, as well,           
            more deeply            
            the same.

A masked young man,           
            a gun in his hand,   
            pointed at the back        
            of Matthew’s head—close in,           
            pointed at the back
            chose in that split second           
            to move his index finger           
            hardly half an inch—           
            once, twice, three times more           
            and in that small act           
            became executioner.           
            Matthew lay dead on the street.           
            Noel, his buddy, lay fatally bleeding.

How is it, then,           
            I pulled the trigger?
            That is the only question.
            And the only answer I know
            is the story of my life,
            the story of Matthew’s life,
            the story of Noel’s life,
            the story of this nameless young assassin’s life.
            For, in fact, we are all in this together.
            We are inexorably one with the other.
            That’s just the way it is—
            always the way it is.

I know nothing
            of the executioner,
            nearly nothing of Noel,
            save the profound agony
            I saw in his immigrant parents’ eyes.
            I do know something of Matthew—
            for twenty of his twenty-three years
            I was in his life and formed it
            in whatever ways I did— 
            for good or for ill. 

     But mostly I know myself,
            or, more honestly, try to 
            and this nameless young man  
            forced upon me, in that split second,
            no doubt, thoughtlessly,           
            the need for me to see
            myself as executioner—
            all those tiny
            acts that

O, Felix culpa! Oh, light from darkness!

                        Third Year – Day 78  –  November 21, 2010

To continue reading, visit Matthew III: We are not innocent.

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  1. Your prose is sublime. Your observations are beautiful and poignant. Thank you for sharing such an intimate glimpse into your heart and your life dear Bill. My hat’s off to you as a writer and a conscious, awakened citizen. Love you Bill.

  2. Martin,

    How good to hear from you and thank you for your kind words. It is always good to receive validation and to feel seen and heard and held. But . . .

    You know the problem I am struggling with personally is how do I communicate across the divide of personal belief systems? I am open to any ideas or experiences you may have or have had that deal with this issue.



  3. Thank you Bill for letting me see your exploration, your sorrow, your hurt, your examination of yourself and all of us “Humans.” It is a daunting task to explain the unexplainable. I can’t imagine losing my son or a child or a close friend for that matter in such an instant.
    I think of my time doing Conflict Resolution and Restorative Justice as the Maori Tribe has taught us. I like the idea of bringing all the people affected by this act in a room together plus Luis and all his family and grieving and weeping for all the results of those actions. Somehow, wailing and howling enough to change enough people to start some kind of healing. Some kind of human healing that is not a part of our human condition because we still do these things. As you remind me we all have our finger on the trigger at some point in our lives. Yet, some pull the trigger and some don’t. Nevertheless, it is still in our mind ready at any moment.
    Bill, I love you and your ability to shed light on the dark places. Bring the light…Bring the light

    • Brian, I hear you. Thanks for responding. We never know what will come but certainly justice can’t happen if we don’t imagine it before hand. I am trying ti imagine a world where restoration of the connection can be the ultimate goal.

      As I said to Martin, part of that is to imagine bridging the impossible divides between systems of belief. I know there are lots of people doing this work and at some point we will get there, at least that is my hope.

  4. Bill, I was reading an article today about something called “Hands Across the Hills” that made me think of your question about communicating across the divide of personal belief. The effort gathered people of opposing political beliefs for a structured but honest dialog. Here’s where I read about it:

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