I recently reread Albert Camus’ iconic novel, The Stranger. It struck me as I was reading that Meursault’s detached personality and precise, yet objective truthfulness would probably place him somewhere on the autism spectrum today. As most people know, the bizarre cultural mindset of the time in which the novel is set (1950’s French colonial Algeria) has Meursault sentenced to death essentially not for the crime committed (unpremeditated murder) but for his not being a sufficiently good and empathic son to his recently deceased mother.
Compassion, remorse, regret – these are certainly human attributes for all time, and we (in the court of public opinion) tend to harshly judge those in whom these characteristics appear to be absent. And yet, when we judge, are we demonstrating the compassionate attributes for which we are so quick to judge the absence in those who have committed unfortunate or unspeakable acts?
In current events, there are two horrific crimes that have recently been in the news which seem especially relevant to the question of how we, as human beings, deal with the stranger. One is Dylann Roof, the now 22 year old self-declared white supremacist who ambushed and killed nine members of a bible study class in the historic Mother Emmanuel Church in South Carolina on June 17, 2015. He was just convicted and unanimously sentenced to death by a jury in South Carolina. Roof refused attorney representation in the final sentencing phase of the trial. He spoke little, and offered no defense for himself. He did make a short final statement:
Roof: I had no choice
Before the jury deliberated his fate for three hours, Roof told the jury he still feels he had no choice but to kill nine people at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in June 2015.
“In my confession to the FBI I told them that I had to do it, and obviously that’s not really true. … I didn’t have to do anything,” Roof said as he made his own five-minute closing argument in the penalty phase of his federal trial. “But what I meant when I said that was, I felt like I had to do it, and I still do feel like I had to do it.”
But he also had suggested he’d like to be spared.
In a New York Times article about Roof
‘s background and circumstances of the crime, one of Roof’s middle school friends said:
“When he opened up, you could tell something was wrong at home. He wasn’t at peace,” said Taliaferro Robinson-Heyward, who attended middle school with Mr. Roof. “It wasn’t like he was a mean person, but you could tell he had a darkness to his life.”
It seems as if Roof had a solid middle class background until his family fell on hard times, financially. According to news articles, his mother lost her home to foreclosure, and his father lost his construction business. His parents divorced. As is often the case, human beings who are immature and unable to face the darkness, suffering, or chaos inside of themselves or the instability that life’s circumstances or challenges may present, choose to blame others and to scapegoat rather than to look within for solutions. It is an ongoing global human tragedy that people with darker colored skin are frequently those chosen as scapegoats simply because they are seen as symbols for darkness inside a fearful person. Darkness, which is an absence of the light of consciousness, is symbolically projected onto those who could be said to represent darkness.
When Roof said he had no choice, he did not know that he had the ability to reject the powerful, dark thoughts that he had allowed to flood and overtake his psyche for many years. Is he responsible for his thoughts and for his crimes? Absolutely. But we, the collective society, have the responsibility to teach children that we always have a choice. That we can choose which thoughts to accept or reject. We can create our own happiness and find inner peace, no matter what the outer circumstances of our world are. Divorce, unemployment, solitude – none of these circumstances create our reality or distort our inner peace unless we give permission to these thoughts of fear, failure, rejection to overtake and destroy that peace.
The real interest of the Dylann Roof story to me as well as another recent news story about Norwegian mass murderer and white surpremacist, Anders Breivik
are about how society responds to deeply disturbing acts and individuals who clearly are a dangerous threat to society.
Breivik, in an attempt to attract massive media attention to himself and to his political plan for Norway, murdered 77 people, including 33 children under the age of 18 at a Labor Party summer camp in 2011. Because of Breivik’s clearly stated intentions to vigorously spread his neo-Nazi philosophy while in prison (capital punishment does not exist in Norway), the judicial system of the Scandinavian nation decided to prevent the spread of Breivik’s toxic philosophy within prison walls by placing him in solitary confinement for five years. Breivik is now appealing this treatment, which is being examined by the high European court, to decide whether it is cruel or unusually excessive punishment.
The difference between the Roof case and the Breivik case is distinguished not by the state of derangement of the criminals, not by the anti-social and dangerous nature of their messages, but by how society judges and deals with these crimes and their punishment.
“Breivik’s court appearance posed a fresh challenge to the Norwegian state. To uphold the country’s democratic values, the authorities had to allow him to appear in court, knowing full well that the proceedings would be televised and that he would likely use the occasion to reach out to potential followers. Adele Matheson Mestad, a lawyer for the Norwegian state, told the court Breivik’s ideology is especially dangerous right now because the large numbers of refugees entering Europe have given rise to an increase in right-wing activity on the continent. Were he able to communicate freely, Mestad said, Breivik could encourage sympathizers to commit acts of violence.”
The dilemma in Europe is as follows: It is important to treat criminals in a humane manner, regardless of the nature of the crime committed, yet treating Breivik humanely (ie, avoiding excessive isolation) would help to spread his dangerous anti-social philosophies to a captive audience. Authorities have been attempting to weigh and measure the effects of their choices on both the incarcerated and free citizens, as well as refugees potentially entering Norway.
In America, we have no such profound moral debate, and we are rarely concerned about the fair treatment of criminals. Most prisons in the U.S. are owned and run by private corporations, which is immoral in itself. Many of those incarcerated in the United States never face trial, and many are unjustly arrested. Torture is common, as is excessive and unjustified use of solitary confinement, and medical care is frequently withheld. Capital punishment
has been made illegal in 18 of the 50 states. Some progress is being made. Looking at the stranger within, and examining our own personal and cultural shadows is important. Without this examination, consciousness cannot effectively evolve.
I recently finished reading Trevor Noah’s memoir, Born a Crime: Stories of a South African Childhood.
Noah, now a successful stand-up comedian and host of the Daily Show, grew up poor in pre and post apartheid South Africa. His book is a collection of personal recollections and anecdotes, but also contains very pertinent and interesting analyses of race relations and what it means to be an outsider. Noah’s mother was black and his father white. He fit in nowhere in the system and had to spend much of his younger years hiding. Sometimes his appearance gave him advantages, but often it made him invisible. He learned to use language to navigate between the many cultural groups of South Africa, finding acceptance at times, but rarely friendship. Being a stranger or outsider has given Noah great insight into the human condition and into the current dilemma of race relations.
The drama of humanity evolving to a state that accepts difference on superficial and deep levels is a key question. I personally believe that human nature is currently evolving, and it is this tribal attribute which must pass away before we are able to move forward to a more peaceful and compassionate society. You may believe that human nature is immutable, and that people will always judge others based on their appearance and the way they talk as well as by their customs and behaviors. But I firmly believe that humanity is beginning to look inward before looking outward. We are being shown many cases of darkness and violence to prove that we always have a choice. Not only do criminals make choices, but we too, as members of the court of public opinion, make choices. Do we choose darkness or light? What is compassionate action?
The fact that the peoples of Europe are asking these questions about fair punishment of an obviously highly disturbed and dangerous individual such as Anders Breivik is important. It is important to discuss together why so many people are afraid, and why they choose fear over love. It is important to discuss how we can become more compassionate societies and teach compassion and empathy to our children. There are individuals who are born without the ability to feel empathy for others. But in compassionate and cooperative societies, they are less likely to act on anti-social impulses. In other words, we are all connected, and we are all on some level, responsible not only for ourselves, but also for one another.
We live in a very individualistic and isolationist society in America. Media propaganda, social media, and the current style of “news” which caters to our opinions rather than delivering fair-minded reporting of factual information. This increases divisiveness and tribalism. When we are isolated from one another, empathy is more difficult and abstract. Some are using virtual reality devices to help people share deep emotional experiences with those they may never encounter, such as refugees. But nothing really can beat an individual experience in which highly personal choices must be made.
The stranger is inside all of us. We are each different, and each of us is potentially an outsider. When will human societies learn to embrace us all as equals? I believe this will happen when we each learn to take responsibility for ourselves, for our own thoughts, feelings, and when we learn to love ourselves deeply and without reserve. Acceptance is a nice thing. Belonging has a powerful pull on human beings. It is currently the force behind racism and white supremacy philosophies. It is based on insecurity, on simultaneous rejection and embrace of the shadows within. It is based on a lack of self love and an immaturity which does not differentiate the choices we must all make in life.
Earth is a free will planet. We all struggle with challenges and choices. Self love is mastery. We all have the power within to reject darkness, selfishness, cruelty, bitterness, worry, loneliness, feelings of failure, and fear from our own hearts and minds. We all have the equal power to choose light, love, compassion, empathy, trust, and joy in each moment, for each thought. Not all human beings are going to evolve at the same speed. It will take many generations, perhaps hundreds of years to see a great change. But because human consciousness is extremely powerful, and because we are all entangled in a unified field of consciousness in partnership with planet Earth, we each have the power to affect the consciousness of humanity and of the planet. The more light and gentle energy we consciously spread on Earth, the sooner those who are conflicted and overwhelmed with hate and fear will soften. They will not know why they are changing, but the energy affects us all.