Slaughter Everyday: Sovereignty, The Animal and Homophobia

Contributed by Nick Mirzoeff NYU
June 11, 2010
Nick_Mirzoeff's picture
Part of the Cluster:

The Murder of Jorge Steven López Mercado

Acts of violence inscribe power onto bodies. They do so in ways that are intended to create memory and forgetting. In the case of the brutal murder of Jorge Steven López Mercado, the sheer excess of violence, in which the body was dismembered, decapitated and partially burnt, seems intended to impair remembrance by making it painful to contemplate, at the same time as it is impossible to forget. As far as is yet known, Jorge Steven encountered the killer Juan José Martínez Matos while engaged in sex work. At this time Jorge Steven was wearing drag. I use these circumlocutions because there is now a considerable debate within Puerto Rico and activist circles as to the correct designation of his identity, ranging from gay to transgender. Such debates indicate that the work of violence has not failed to disrupt and disturb. While the case has been reported in LGBT publications, it has received little mainstream coverage in the US, contrasting with the Matthew Shepard case. 

When I heard about the crime, it recalled the 1757 execution of the regicide Damiens made famous by Michel Foucault, in which the body of the condemned was dismembered and tortured under a multiple logic. First it repaired the offence against the “body politic,” the second of the “King’s Two Bodies,” as Ernst Kantorowicz memorably described medieval monarchy. In this sense, violence meted out by the law renders the social situation equal by matching one act with another to return to stability. Next, it was intended to save the soul of the offender by reconciling him with the Church, the amende honorable. Finally, it served as a warning to those still living not to contemplate any similar act. While these acts were certainly torture, they were not intended as the products of hate so much as those of the terrible love manifested by the church militant and its secular arm, the monarchy. In short, Damiens’ execution was spectacular but, far from being meaningless, for its the violence was saturated with meanings. 

Does this parallel have any purchase in this case? The killer would seem to have had no official legal sanction. Yet much of the outrage in activist circles since the murder stems from the equivocations by certain politicians and police officers in Puerto Rico and the silence of Governor Luis Fortuño. It seems inconceivable that such a murder would be ignored or excused if the victim were not identified as LGBT. By the same token, however, the extreme degree of violence used has generated a certain extra degree of attention to the case both on the island and within the US. One can conclude that the dismemberment was intended as a message of some kind. Indeed, had the case been less spectacular, it is likely that it would not have been prosecuted as quickly by the police. That is to say, the excess violence cannot be attributed to a desire to escape prosecution. 

Indeed, it seems likely that the defense to be mounted by the admitted killer may involve some form of claim regarding so-called “homosexual panic” as used in the Matthew Shepard trial. While Martínez Matos was accepted by a state psychiatrist as capable of standing trial, the question of homosexual panic may yet recur because the standard used to determine this issue is simply the ability to distinguish right from wrong. The “homosexual panic” quasi-diagnosis was first proposed by the American analyst Edward Kempf in his Psychopathology  (1921) from where it made its way into the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual  (DSM) of the American Psychiatric Association (APA) in 1952. Subsequent editions of the DSM did not include homosexual panic and the APA deleted homosexuality itself as a disorder from the DSM-II in 1973. The 1980 DSM-III created a new class of “psychosexual disorders,” including gender identity disorder (transsexualism), and “ego-dystonic homosexuality.” The current 1994 DSM-IV makes an unlikely grouping of sexual dysfunction, the paraphilias, and gender identity disorder under the heading “sexual and gender identity disorders.” Much controversy surrounds the on-going revision of these diagnoses. Were gender identity to be removed, for instance, insurance would be likely to refuse to pay for gender reassignment surgery. Given this confusing psychiatric context, it would relatively easy for a lawyer to suggest “homosexual panic” as a mitigating factor, without having to specify precisely its meaning.

It is surely unlikely that Martínez Matos, known locally as “Casper,” was thinking ahead to such an elaborate defense strategy. It turns out that his father is a butcher, a trade that he may also share. In the chilling forensic photograph that “somehow” found its way onto the Internet, it was apparent that the person who dismembered Jorge Steven knew what he was doing. The limbs were neatly and cleanly separated, not hacked apart. Whatever the nature of the encounter, it seems likely that Casper felt himself interpellated by what Lacan called the “law of the father.” In a public statement he has declared: “Forgive me, dad, forgive me. I picked up that boy from Padial street and killed him downstairs [bajos de tu casa] in your house.” The phrase “bajos de tu casa” is ambiguous but as Carmen Oquendo-Villar commented to me: “the son was physically under the father while performing the act. Not just inside of the father’s house, but right under him.” The desire to be under the father, to be possessed by the father, articulates itself through violence. The biological father blends imperceptibly into God the Father, who subjugates, orders and dominates from above.

Lacan specified that the gaze is a structure whereby one feels looked at from outside, regardless of the physical presence of others. If, as is claimed, the encounter between Casper and Jorge Steven took place in the father’s house, it would appear that the trans-gressive act against the law of the father was at once answered by the jealous patriarch(y). That is to say, the killer felt himself looked at by the father that he had internalized and felt required to punish his own sexual act. The violence was a restitution of the law to which the subject feels allegiance but cannot fully perform. Its excess and the proper performance of butchery, the father’s trade, were components of the revenge required by the law and the (re)establishment of sexual difference as a gendered, normative binary.

I venture this interpretation not to excuse Martínez Matos or to diminish the horror of what was done but to suggest that the act was far from random or meaningless. There is a sense in which Martínez Matos was also a victim of his own (father’s) homophobia. It connects the violence to sovereignty, as in the case of Damiens, but via the domesticated animal, who is the “normal” object of butchery, not to mention vivisection.The purpose of the domestic animal is to be slaughtered. There is here a distinction to be made between the domesticated animal, raised in order to be killed, and the wild animal that may or may not be hunted, according to complex codes of what is permitted to be eaten, when it may be killed and how. It is further distinguished from the “companion species,” such as dogs and cats.

In his recently translated seminar The Beast and the Sovereign (2001-2), Jacques Derrida pointed out that the animal and the sovereign are both outside the law: “in a becoming-beast of the sovereign or in a becoming-sovereign of the beast, the passage from the one to the other, the analogy, the resemblance, the alliance, the hymen depending on the fact that they both share that very singular position of being outlaws, above or at a distance from the law” (32). The sovereignty in play here is a fusion of that “petty sovereignty” discerned by Judith Butler in her analysis of Guantánamo Bay and the classic definition of sovereignty as the power to withdraw life, brought together in the figure of the keeper of livestock. In killing, Casper asserted his right as a petty sovereign of heteronormativity to withdraw life . By butchering his victim, Casper asserted sovereignty and patriarchy while “rendering” his victim an animal, to use a technical term for the industrialized production of meat. There is here a distinction to be made between the domesticated animal, raised in order to be killed, and the wild animal that may or may not be hunted, according to complex codes of what is permitted to be eaten, when it may be killed and how. 

The connection in this affair is not with Damiens but with the abuses of Abu Ghraib in 2004. Lyndie England, the young woman who became the symbol of the affair, had previously worked in a chicken-rendering plant in West Virginia, where the animals were routinely sexually and physically abused. In Iraq, the prisoners were described as “animals” over and again by their guards and were forced to perform “homosexuality” as evidence of their bestiality. In a performative circle, the abusers of animals turned their prisoners into “animals” by making them appear to be “unnatural” and therefore worthy of slaughter.

This logic is very much at work in present-day jurisprudence. In his dissent to Lawrence v. Texas (2003), in which the remaining state laws criminalizing “sodomy” were invalidated by the US Supreme Court, Justice Antonin Scalia ventured to assert that the consequence would be the legalization of bestiality, not to mention incest, adultery, bigamy and other offences against the law of the father. This theme has been picked up by anti-marriage equality activists, playing a part in their surprisingly successful populist campaigns. Fear, as Hobbes long ago argued, is central to sovereignty and its deployment. In part that fear is fear of sovereignty, of its outlaw status, its bestiality. Sovereign homophobia, the rendering animal, restoration of order: these are the performances required and enacted from the Supreme Court to the local murder in the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico.

Without exploring the growing sovereign claims of the Supreme Court, it is important to note how even the word “sovereignty” is controversial in Puerto Rico. Following a presentation by former Governor Anibal Acevedo-Vilá, the United Nations Decolonization Committee ruled in June 2008 that the US should “expedite a process that would allow the Puerto Rican people fully to exercise their inalienable right to self-determination and independence,” release all political prisoners and restore Vieques Island to civilian control. Curiously Acevedo-Vilà was indicted on federal corruption charges at this time, contributing to the election of the current Republican governor Fortuño in November 2008. More curiously still, Acevedo-Vilà was found not guilty of all charges in March 2009, some fifteen of the 24 counts having been dismissed by the judge before trial.  Sovereignty issues have now been shelved and a constitutional ban on gay marriage (in addition to the current legal prohibition) was proposed by Fortuño in January 2010. None of these comments excuse Acevedo-Vilà from accusations of corruption, which seems endemic to the internal politics of the island. These issues are rarely reported in the United States in order to maintain the “fit of absence of mind” (to quote J.R. Seeley's aphorism on the British empire) in which the Republic remains an empire.

When Jorge Steven made the poor decision to get into Casper’s car, none of this was in his mind or that of his john, who became his killer. But that intersection was always already potentially fatal, an expression of the sovereign fear that has dominated the United States since 2001. Nor is the violence only “peripheral” or remote. In December 2008, José Sucuzhañay, an Ecuadorean immigrant, was murdered in Brooklyn, apparently because his assailants assumed he was gay. Routinely ignored, routinely mitigated as the act of bad apple(s), such violence is by now routine, the very fabric of everyday life in the present crisis. As much as we want to look away or look elsewhere, everyday violence demands our everyday attention.

Comments

Kayla Tamney's picture
Response from
Kayla

November 30, 2011

Re: Slaughter Everyday: Sovereignty, The Animal and Homophobia

I think the worst thing about this murder was it's intense brutality. The fact that the murderer went through all of the effort to not only kill him, but brutally torture and dismember his body sends a really intense and horrific message. It's as though murder wasn't enough, the murderer needed to go to those extra levels of hate because the fact that he would no longer be alive didn't suffice. The reference to animal and butchers just proves it even more, human beings should not need to be compared to that kind of brutality; although I do think it is a very interesting point to do so.

theresa's picture
Response from
theresa

November 30, 2011

Re: Slaughter Everyday: Sovereignty, The Animal and Homophobia

It is interesting that this article suggests that what Martinez did wasn't random. The homophobia instilled in him because of his father may have been the cause for Jorge Steven's murder. It makes sense that Martinez was homophobic because of repeated instances of homphobia in his adolescence. This doesn't justify the murder, but there is usually a correlation between people who commit crimes like this and their chidlhood.

Larry B's picture
Response from
Larry

November 30, 2011

Re: Slaughter Everyday: Sovereignty, The Animal and Homophobia

This article shocked and disturbed me after reading the other article "Homo Freak". It seems that the murderer, "Casper" knew exactly what he was doing. He was disgusted with his lifestyle and took it out on someone else. His father was a butcher so he knew exactly how to dismember the body. He also seemed to have an Oedipus Complex by commiting "the act" in his father's house right underneath him. This wasn't just a hate crime. It's pure murder.

Marleny's picture
Response from
Marleny Gonzalez

November 30, 2011

Re: Slaughter Everyday: Sovereignty, The Animal and Homophobia

In this case it seems like he had the Oedipus Complex but its a little weird because he doesnt hate his father, her just wanted to emulate his father but he did in such a way that it seemed like he became possesed and savagely murdered someone "underhis father". This statement makes me think when one prays and they say "under father, the son and the holy spirit", he proabably felt this is how he would make his own father happy but under "his father's" [God] supervision. This may have also been a psychotic moment of anger or jealousy or he may have been possibly possesed (which I do believe in to a certain extent) but what he did was not right.

Barbara Lindsay's picture
Response from
Barbara Lindsay

November 30, 2011

Re: Slaughter Everyday: Sovereignty, The Animal and Homophobia

This article really goes into the pathology of violence and how we as humans achieve power out of physical violence and murder. I thought it was well described how the "othering" that occurs through the rejection of homosexuals is a process of dehumanization. By dehumanizing the person who is to recieve the violence the evil of the violence itself is justified. The aggressor in their own mind is relieved of the moral burden of the crime they have committed because it is a righting of "normality".

ChrisQuinn's picture
Response from
Chris Quinn

November 30, 2011

Re: Slaughter Everyday: Sovereignty, The Animal and Homophobia

This story brings to real life the horror genre aspects we were discussing about Nightmare on Elm Street 2. The "homosexual panic" that may be suggested for the butcher's sons actions are reflexive of Freddy emerging and killing Jesse's friend Grady. It seems to me that the defense for the murderer are trying to make his suggested homosexuality a pathology.

jamie.wollberg's picture
Response from
Jamie

November 30, 2011

Re: Slaughter Everyday: Sovereignty, The Animal and Homophobia

Pretty creepy to compare his body being chopped up by a butchers son to an animal, but I find it true. The only thing that I'm having a hard time with is the fact that some people really do believe that these religious reasons are legitimate. I consider myself spiritual, not religious and basically I can't look pass the fact that a hate-crime is a hate-crime. There is no excuse for killing someone just because they are different from you.

cordero24's picture
Response from
erick cordero

November 30, 2011

Re: Slaughter Everyday: Sovereignty, The Animal and Homophobia

This article was very interesting to read, especially with the evidence leading to the fact that the murderer was possibly gay and did it out of anger and disgust of himself, but it did seem to be a little too much when the author kept trying to gvie the many homosexual meanings that an "animal" can be used for. But the butcher aspect of the story of the murder was very interesting to read. 

dmasai12's picture
Response from
Dylan

November 30, 2011

Re: Slaughter Everyday: Sovereignty, The Animal and Homophobia

  

 

This article was very eye-opening for me, especially the bit about the police and the governor hiding information. The fact that this kind of shady behavior still exists in politics and law enforcement is shocking. 

tierra_james's picture
Response from
Tierra James

November 30, 2011

Tierra J.

I found this to be interesting but at the same time too much.  I do believe that Martinez may have felt offended because he thought he was picking up a female, but the idea of him doing it because his father's homophobic mentality rubbed of onto him, and the act was being done through the will of his father seems like the situation is being read in to too much.  I also think that it seems like they are saying that the GLBT community should just assume that things like this could happen and live life in fear of it is not fair. At the end of the day, a crime is a crime, regardless of what mental state someone might have.

JoshiePoo's picture
Response from
Joshua Oates

November 29, 2011

Re: Slaughter Everyday: Sovereignty, The Animal and Homophobia

I really found it fascinating how the article discusses violence as an assertion of power and dominance. I've always thought of violence that way but I've never really heard anyone else talk about it. I also found it's connection to the killing of animals interesting.

I think it's important to remember that none of us have the right to act violently. To act violently towards someone is to say that you are more important than them, that your life is worth more, and that is not the case. We are all human beings, we are all the same and of the same worth. Sure, it is arguable that people who are smart are worth more than people who are dumb, but intelligence is subjective, that is why there is a distinction between street smarts and book smarts.

I could care less that Casper is partially not responsible for his actions in that it his father that he has inhereted his homophobia from and that it could not be helped… cause the fact that he didn't have enough moral code ingrained in him that allows him to accept the differences of other people or just that he feels that he has the right to exert power in the form of violence on others, is completely enough reason for him to be thrown in jail and suffer SEVERE consequences. Perhaps not for life… but for a very long time. To me, what's the point of living life if you don't get a second chance… but I guess others would argue that some people are so attached to their childhood, and their devotion to the mother and father, that once their an adult and they hold those tainted ideals that there is no coming back, and so all you can do is cage them for the rest of their life, and protect society from them.

smar2391's picture
Response from
Stephanie

November 29, 2011

Re: Slaughter Everyday: Sovereignty, The Animal and Homophobia

  

Given this confusing psychiatric context, it would relatively easy for a lawyer to suggest ‘homosexual panic’ as a mitigating factor, without having to specify precisely its meaning.”   In my opinion if a lawyer is going to use this type of defense they should precisely specify what they mean by “homosexual panic”.   A defense should always be backed up with substantial evidence, physical or scientific.   

It’s extremely disturbing to think that in the case of both Jorge Steven López Mercado’s murder and the abuses of Abu Ghraib that homosexuality is seen as animalistic to some.  The guards justified their acts because the prisoners were seen as such unnatural beings to them that they were “worthy of slaughter.”  It is disgusting to think any one human-being can be "worthy of slaughter."

ajsaab's picture
Response from
a. joan Saab

April 22, 2010

Crushing

 Nick,

Thanks for a great piece. What do you think of the recent SCOTUS overturn of animal crushing videos?

Nick_Mirzoeff's picture
Response from
Nick Mirzoeff

April 26, 2010

Crushing is the word

Joan, that’s a great association! What happens to someone like Michael Vick in light of this decision? It’s so odd to see the conservative court go this way that one feels there must be another rationale lurking—this may be designed to protect the ‘free speech’ ruling on political contributions for example. Or perhaps it’s about hunting and not wanting to set any precedent that could appear to equate animal killing with cruelty (!)…