Friday, November 26, 2004

Beating Up Matthew Shepard Again

ABC’s 20/20, that paragon of understated journalism and rightful heir to the mantle of Edward R. Murrow – NOT! – re-investigates the motives for the 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard in Laramie, Wyoming. Glenn Garvin, TV critic for the Miami Herald, has a review of this piece.

The killers, Russell Henderson and Aaron McKinney, say they were roaming Laramie that night looking for a drug dealer whom McKinney — hopelessly strung out on methamphetamine — planned to rip off.

Instead, they bumped into the drunken Shepard, himself no stranger to the local drug scene. When Shepard offered to trade his own supply of speed for sex, the men say, they agreed — but their real plan was to rob him. The scheme went lethally awry, they say, when McKinney, in the grip of a mindless, meth-induced rage, couldn’t stop battering Shepard with the butt of a gun.

Clearly the killers themselves are not necessarily the most credible witnesses. But 20/20 buttresses their accounts with testimony from others who confirm that Shepard was tangled up with Laramie’s drug world. Others say that McKinney is bisexual, an unlikely candidate to commit a homophobic murder. And the Laramie police note that McKinney and Henderson got in a fight with two other men later that night and broke one of their skulls. ”What it came down to really was drugs and money, and two punks who were out looking for it,” says one cop.

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The unspoken but very real question posed by 20/20 is: So what? Is Shepard’s murder less horrible if it was triggered by greed and drugs instead of by hatred of gays? Did it hurt any less when his ear was torn off or his teeth shattered? Was he any less terrified, tied to that fence in the night, feeling his life drain away into the snow?

Of course not. What happened to Matthew Shepard was an atrocity by any measure — except in the perverse logic of the hate-crime laws, where human suffering is judged not for itself but through distorting lenses of sexual orientation and skin color.

That is the flip side of hate-crime laws: If some victims matter more, then others necessarily matter less. The implicit lesson of tonight’s 20/20 is the reverse: that the murder of Matthew Shepard was wrong not because it was homophobic, but because it was murder.

I thought we had gotten beyond the blame-the-victim defense. It shouldn’t work with rape or lynching – which is what happened to Matthew Shepard, regardless of whether or not he was “no stranger to the drug scene.” But I guess not.