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 (deathpenaltyinfo.org) 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,
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
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
O, Felix culpa! Oh, light from darkness!
Third Year – Day 78 – November 21, 2010To continue reading, visit Matthew III: We are not innocent.