by Jim Surkamp
Matthew Shepard, James Byrd And A Trial Of One
JASPER, TEXAS: On June 7th, 1998, James Byrd, a black man was attacked by three white men. They beat him senseless with a bat, slit his throat and then dragged him three miles behind a pickup truck until he was dead. They murdered him because he was black.
WYOMING: On October 10th, 1998, Matthew Shepard, a young, gay university student was beaten by two men, tied to a fence post and left to die, because he was gay.
Much has been written to understand why a person would murder another human being, because he was black or gay, or a part of any other group. We look to the personal environment: was the individual abused? We look at social conditions such as poverty and lack of economic opportunity. Often all this may be true, but it never seems a sufficient answer to explain the horror of the crime. The question remains– why do some people [and not others] hate so much that they lose all sense of humanity? Our outrage at such atrocities brings us no closer to understanding. In fact, perhaps our anger keeps us further from comprehension.
When we simply vilify these perpetrators and look outside ourselves for external conditions as causes, I think we lose our way. May I suggest we are looking in all the wrong places? Let’s try looking inside ourselves to find some answers.
Start with this question: Do you believe that evil really exists? If you do, does it exist only in some and not others? In my struggle to answer this question, I sought answers in books.
I am only a reader of the very prolific Carl Jung, Swiss psychiatrist. I know no more than anyone else might glean from his work. In his inventory of the human psyche, he says that we all have a shadow side, which is really the flip [dark] side of our conscious selves.
Most of us live our lives unaware of this shadow self which inhabits us. Of course, we have all had the experience of suddenly saying something ridiculous, inappropriate or even dangerous, which somehow just slips out. And we wonder–who said that? That, of course, is your shadow side talking–or acting. So, it is difficult to admit that some unknown person resides within.
What else is in the unconscious? According to Jung, the unconscious is home to the instincts and archetypes which are part of our human nature. Lots of “good” archetypes [I like to think them as templates for human ways of being.] reside in us, such as creativity, altruism and the capacity to love. But dark, irrational, primitive things also live there, such as hatred and cruelty. If you’ve never explored your psyche, you’re scarcely to blame, because it is extremely hard to have an objective view of your inner self–somewhat akin to trying to look at your back side without a mirror.
In 1946, after the Second World War, Carl Jung spoke and wrote about Adolf Hitler and evil and the shadow. He said that people did not realize that
[Hitler] symbolized something in every individual. He was the most prodigious personification of all human inferiorities. He was an utterly incapable, unadapted, irresponsible psychopathic personality full of empty infantile fantasies, but cursed with the keen intuition of a rat or a guttersnipe. He represented the shadow, the inferior part of everybody’s personality, in an overwhelming degree…
Unfortunately, there have been too many Hitlers in our time to name. White supremacist groups still thrive, and frightening murderers such as those men who killed Byrd and Shepard, remain incomprehensible to us.
In our minds, the evil remains outside of us. But, if the shadow is within us all, then perhaps it is not so foreign. Do we not go to war on a wave of emotion against the evil-doers–the ones outside of us? Jung had much to say about people acting in groups–the collective psychology which infects human beings. The Ku Klux Clan and fundamentalist religious fanatics of all stripes are fine examples of the power of the collective unconscious at work.
Unfortunately, the world has not seen the last of this Hitler type of personality–and we never will, because this is the dark flip-side of every human psyche. And so, this is evil. Hard to believe? Just watch the news for half an hour. There you will see a daily parade of murder violence, torture and cruelty. Which brings us back to the Byrd and Shepard cases? Sadly, they do not stand out as isolated incidents.
How do we avoid or minimize this outbreak of violence? Jung has only a long term solution. It is for each one of us to look inside and become aware of the unconscious forces that direct us. Without that effort, we can never guard against them. Perhaps, on the positive side, we must look to developing love, tolerance, forgiveness and compassion. And that is extremely hard to do, because it will require mankind to evolve to a higher level. And we know how long evolution takes!
But we must start somewhere!
As to where or how, I can only answer personally. Ten years ago, the very brutal slaying of Matthew Shepard caused me to examine my own views, which were slightly homophobic. Being a writer, I found the best venue was in the form of a novel, A Trial of One, the third in The Osgoode Trilogy. In the midst of spinning an exciting mystery/suspense novel with plenty of murder and fraud, I found another plot line emerging–almost as if it were coming up from the deep.
The hero, Harry Jenkins, a Toronto lawyer, is mildly homophobic. He would never harm anyone, but he just is not comfortable with it. And so, while he is searching for a huge sum of money for his client, he comes face to face with his own homophobia and does conquer it. I hope you will read A Trial of One and join me on my journey. It was his trial of one–as it was mine.