I read the article posted recently on the question of the death penalty. I was particularly taken with "The concept of "an eye for an eye" is a wonderful idea." and "I smile when I hear that another execution has taken place, because for me it means that the ultimate justice has been served."
I typed out a strongly worded comment full of vitriol. I used words like "barbaric" and "vile" to express my feelings towards the attitudes expressed by the author. I read it through and decided I was justified in taking such a strong stance, even though I knew it might upset some readers and the author.
Then, when I clicked the button to post the comment the gods must have intervened because I lost my internet connection. All my cleverly crafted criticisms and the whole diabolical diatribe — gone ... vanished into the ether. For a few moments I considered retyping what I could remember, but in the end was too tired and went to bed.
A day later, and after some reflection I can see a bigger picture, something more than just reacting to one person's rather sad model of the world. I believe the author of that article is like so many in modern society — an angry and troubled person who needs help. But ironically I can now see he is also linked to the murderers — the ones he enjoys seeing executed. As I see it now, they are both products of a dark and nasty underbelly of American society that hides behind a vanilla flavoured, artificially constructed facade of faux Christianity.
As Carl Jung observed a century ago, the brighter the light that shines in front of us, the deeper the shadow that falls behind us and follows us everywhere.
American society deals with its failures in vicious ways. There are currently 2.2 million prisoners in jails around the nation. Seven million sons and daughters of the USA are either in prison, on parole or on probation. These are rates of incarceration around five times higher than most comparable modern, developed countries.
America has been led into the world for the last six years by a man who was proud of his state's record of having by far the highest rate of executions in the land while he was governor. One PBS report states that executions happen in Texas "... at a pace that has no parallel in the modern era of the death penalty in the U.S."
The results of the leadership of such a man have been tragic for America and the world. But like a classic Greek tragedy, the outcome was foreseeable from the beginning. How would a man who publicly relished "an eye for an eye" ever come to grips with the subtleties of international diplomacy?
Despite being the richest and most powerful nation, America has 35 million citizens living below the poverty line. Like the numbers of those in prison, this is a staggering and unforgivable waste of human potential. This is 35 million people struggling against the odds to create a safe and healthy environment in which to raise the next generation of law-abiding citizens. Poverty cripples the human spirit and is the breeding ground of mental illness and crime. The socio-economic link between poverty and crime is widely accepted, but there's also a more subtle link.
Poor people and law breakers are two groups that highlight the failings of society. A healthy society is like a healthy individual, it can accept its weaknesses and failures, the evidence does not have to be denied. To the degree that a society does not accept its own failings these groups must be denied, marginalised and blamed for their own situation. In Jungian terms, these groups represent the shadow of society.
Every human being is capable of murder. There is viciousness within each one of us. If we cannot accept this, then we must attack whatever reminds us of it. So instead of admitting that we could be the murderer if we had been brought up the way he was, we insist on "an eye for an eye".
In his wonderful book Being Peace, the famous Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh tells of a refugee boat that was fleeing war-torn Vietnam. The boat was boarded by pirates. They raped a 12 year old girl who then jumped into the ocean and drowned herself. He says "When you first learn of something like that, you get angry at the pirate. You naturally take the side of the girl. As you look more deeply you will see it differently. If you take the side of the little girl, then it is easy. You only have to take a gun and shoot the pirate. But we cannot do that. In my meditation I saw that if I had been born in the village of the pirate and raised in the conditions as he was, I am now the pirate. There is a great likelihood that I would become a pirate. I cannot condemn myself so easily."
He goes on to talk about the conditions of poverty and lack of opportunity in that part of Asia. "If you or I were born today in those fishing villages, we might become sea pirates in 25 years. If you take a gun and shoot the pirate, you shoot all of us, because all of us are to some extent responsible for this state of affairs."
So what are we doing when we advocate the death penalty and seek "an eye for an eye"? Are we really wanting to celebrate "ultimate justice", or is this just a rationalisation? I think the latter. I think we are running away from something inside ourselves that we have not yet learned to accept. And until we do, we will live divided lives, build divided societies and create a divided world.