“I would like nothing better than to see you die, Mr. McKinney. However, this is the time to begin the healing process. To show mercy to someone who refused to show any mercy. Mr. McKinney, I am going to grant you life, as hard as it is for me to do so, because of Matthew.”

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Thus, Dennis Shepard, speaking for himself and his wife Judy during a gut-wrenching and terribly emotional court-room speech to one of his son Matthew’s convicted murders, Aaron McKinney, 22, spared both McKinney and his accomplice, Russell Henderson, 21, of the death penalty. As he spoke, his voice often breaking as he wiped tears streaming down his cheeks, the sound of weeping throughout the courtroom, including both men and women in the jury box, Dennis Shepard called his 21-year old son his hero, and talked of Matthew’s special gift for reaching out and helping others.

McKinney and Henderson beat, tortured, and left Matthew for dead tied to a wooden fence near Laramie, Wyoming on the chilly night of October 6, 1998. Surrounded by his loving family and friends, Matthew died six days later in hospital succumbing to severe head and brain injuries.

“Every time you celebrate Christmas,” Dennis Shepard added, “a birthday, or the Fourth of July, remember that Matthew isn’t. Every time that you wake up in that prison cell, remember that you had the opportunity and the ability to stop your actions that night. You robbed me of something very precious, and I will never forgive you for that.”

That day in October, the healing began, not only for the Shepards, the McKinneys, and the Hendersons, but also for Laramie, for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and trans* community, and for a grieving nation.

The Shepard’s resolve in taking the moral high ground serves as a testament to the power of love over hate and vengeance. Though they may never fully forgive Matthew’s attackers, they take comfort in their actions in stopping any further killing as a result of their tragedy.

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Now, in the wake of the vicious murders of three Israeli Jewish youth — Naftali Frankel, 16, Eyal Yifrach, 19, and Gilad Shaar, 16 — police have arrested six other Israeli Jewish teens for allegedly abducting 16-year-old Palestinian Mohammed Abu Khdeir, and burning his body beyond recognition in what appears as a revenge killing. Also, according to video accounts, three Israeli police officers beat 15-year-old Tariq Abu Khieder, second cousin of slain Mohammed Abu Khdeir, into unconsciousness with several punches and kicks to the head. Tensions continue to mount with both sides, Israeli Jews and Palestinians throughout the region, lobbing bombs into each other’s territories.

From what we know, both Mohammed Abu Khdeir and Tariq Abu Khieder had absolutely no involvement in the murders of the three Israeli youth, but were apparently at the wrong place at the wrong time. The attacks on them stand as a deep and permanent stain on the state of Israel, and as morally reprehensible actions.

Rather than a time of revenge, continued racist madness, and a heightened march toward war, let the murders and beating of all these young men demonstrate that Jews and Palestinians alike love their children and grieve their loss. Let their love and grief connect these two peoples and allow us all to see these tragedies as “the time to start the healing process.” Let us use this time as a detour out from the perennial cycle of violence and mistrust. Let us use this time to at last negotiate an end to the occupation of vanquished territories. Let us use this time to agree to a sustainable coexistence – a possible “Two-State Solution.” Let all these senseless murders and surrounding violence serve as a catalyst to bring people together at last. Let us all show the world that we love our children far more than we hate our enemies as Matthew Shepard’s parents loved their son far more than they hated his killers.

They showed mercy, and today they live in peace with their decision. They have established the Matthew Shepard Foundation to continue the work of stopping violence and hate, bullying and harassment of anyone who appears different. And they are reaching out to those who perpetrate the violence.

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Their example has the potential to bring peace to a place far from Wyoming. Though many may believe my thoughts and words naïve and a pipe dream when considering the enormity of historical animosities in the region, maybe we can use a bit more naivety among the principles in the conflict since little else has shown promise in extricating us from the abyss between the people in the area, people who each claim God as their shining light giving them dominion over the land.

Show the world that these young people, and the countless others killed before them, have not died in vain. Let the healing begin.


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