Elie Wiesel

Whatever We Do Must Be Measured in Moral Terms, (Capital Punishment)

VTR Date: September 24, 1989

Elie Wiesel discusses capital punishment.


GUEST: Elie Wiesel
VTR: 09/24/1989

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND, where over the years I’ve often asked my guest today, Elie Wiesel, writer, historian, witness, much-honored winner of the Nobel Peace Prize to come to discuss with me some of the larger public issues of our times in terms of the moral considerations that lie behind this nation’s and, indeed, the world community’s public choices. Yet it seems so clear that whatever paths nations follow, whatever choices mankind makes, what individual men and women, you and I decide and do about them must loom even larger, so that the moral responsibilities of the private person are what I would pursue today with Elie Wiesel, perhaps soon again in this setting or another looking further at how individuals might view some of the more pressing civic or social issues of our times, always from my guest’s perspective that whatever we do must be measured in moral terms. And there are many such issues having to do with genetic manipulation or making ourselves over, with education for what and for whom, with euthanasia, mercy killing and living wills, with the line between madness and sanity in the modern world, with doing good or doing well, what most profits a man or a woman, with the proper boundaries between church and state and between religion and politics, with the respective roles of men and women and on and on and on.

Today I want to focus our dialogue first on capital punishment, asking Elie Wiesel how individually he believes we can measure it in moral terms.

Wiesel: I’m against it. I am against capital punishment for many reasons. One, I do not believe any society, any civilized society should be at the service of death. Death is always a blemish on creation according to the tradition that I come from. Death is a scandal, and the fact that people die should not help us make more people die. Now there is something else, in capital punishment there’s a certain element of staging, it becomes a spectacle, and I’m against staging death. Whenever death strikes it should move people to close their eyes and think and think about life, think about the living, about the responsibility of man and woman for the living, so on all accounts I’m against, with some exceptions…

Heffner: Ah, “on all accounts, but with some exceptions”?

Wiesel: Yes. There’s one…

Heffner: Explain that.

Wiesel: I’ll give you an example, I must be honest about it. When Israel had the Eichmann trial, I went there to cover the trial and Eichmann was sentenced to death, and afterwards, a great Jewish philosopher, I think, began signing petitions or obtaining signatures for petitions to have Eichmann spared, and I didn’t sign that petition. That’s the exception.

Heffner: Tell me though why you did not.

Wiesel: I felt that Eichmann, a man who was responsible for so many thousands and thousands and tens of thousands of lives just exterminated, killed, massacred, that man should not… should not be spared. Meaning if, if the court had decided not to execute him I would have also been in favor, but once the court decided to, to sentence him to death, reluctantly I felt that is an exception.

Heffner: Elie, do you wish that you could go back and not change your mind, necessarily, but go back and eliminate the spectacle, and it was a spectacle his trial, as was his death.


Wiesel: No, the death was not, the trial was. But spectacle in the best sense of the word because every trial is a spectacle. You have the decorum, the judge and the judges and the journalists and the public and the prosecutors… something… death makes the value, by the way, that creates the value of the public trial that people come to learn, and they learn. I have seen trials that become educational vehicles of extraordinary importance, the Barbee trial in France, Eichmann trial in Israel, but the death… what I, I heard because I wasn’t there, I think very few people were there, that his death was totally discrete, forgive me for the word, but nobody was there except those who had to be there.

Heffner: But you don’t believe that that kind of death could be discrete.

Wiesel: But it was… it shouldn’t… it cannot be, no. Look, in our own country we have so many states now that have re-introduced capital punishment and you know there are journalists and there is television and there are… and the warden and the priest, it is a spectacle. It’s wrong.

Heffner: But you know what I’m really trying to get at is… I wonder whether you would prefer that we could wipe from memory, and you’re the person who believes in memory, whether we could wipe from memory the fact of the Eichmann trial and his death, his punishment. So that you wouldn’t have to deal with an exception.

Wiesel: Exception, yes. But I’m… I know it’s impossible, and then, also, I don’t think so, it’s an exception, but whenever we deal with that subject I always make exceptions and we must remember everything. And we must even remember that, to tell us that there are exceptions, very rare… they should be rarer and rarer. After that I don’t think I would have accepted any capital punishment.

Heffner: But you have, you have provided a kind of calculus, you talk about the thousands and the tens of thousands who died because of this man. Now there’s a calculus. What is the number that must be reached before you will accept capital punishment?

Wiesel: It’s not matter of number.

Heffner: What is it then Elie?

Wiesel: The event itself, a man who was involved in the “final solution,” meaning in sentencing an entire people to death. I think, the measure is different. Those who were killed in Nuremberg, who were executed the same way, I wasn’t for capital punishment then, but I approve the capital punishment meted out to them, to Goring and so forth because they were involved in something which was beyond the human mind, beyond history, they went beyond the pale of… but that war is always beyond the pale, but especially their war, they have done something that had never been done before… period. They have sentenced a people to die. In other words, not only those who were there in their country, any Jew, anywhere was sentenced to death. Dick, you in America were sentenced to death. And your children who weren’t born yet were sentenced to death. Therefore it is special, it’s a special category, we must learn from that special category, and I learned from it. I learned that death is always a scandal and I am against that anywhere. But I accept this kind of judgment of justice.

Heffner: What about those whose sense of having been or being identified with some other outrage… let us concede that there has been in human history none to equal what we are talking about now.

But individually, certainly, there are people whose involvement with the victims of a murderer lead them to say, “this is an exception.” If we make the exceptions, where do we stop?

Wiesel: I know. I know it’s a trouble and I accept the problem, it is a problem, I see the paradox….

Heffner: Would you …

Wiesel: That’s why I cannot go back because it would be too easy. If I were to say, “All right, forget, Eichmann as an exception and therefore from now on… ” I wouldn’t be honest with you. I think it was done and I accept what was done. I now… I think that I wouldn’t accept any capital punishment.

Heffner: Except as you might discover someone else, today, put on trial in France or in Israel?

Wiesel: Israel doesn’t have capital punishment. France doesn’t have capital punishment, so they make my, my position easier. But I… you… your question is a good question because suppose a serial killer in America…


Heffner: Yes.

Wiesel: True, for the victim… for the victim’s family, this serial killer is as atrocious as Eichmann probably must have been for us, because who am I to judge whose pain is sharper and whose is not. I have no right to downgrade anyone else’s pain.

Heffner: But that… Elie my objective obviously is not to say, “Elie Wiesel, you made a mistake” or anything of the kind, but rather to see what sympathy there is which might become acceptance for those who ask for capital punishment in our own country. Not a blood-thirst, but those who feel similarly violated…

Wiesel: Oh, I… I hear, of course, the arguments, I see the arguments, I read them and I understand them also, but I am against it. The arguments are also for different nature, to prevent… they believe that the only way to prevent murder is to kill the murderer, or to threaten the murder with death. I… it may work, I don’t think so.

Heffner: Well, they’re… most people are more concerned with the example that set for those who might commit such crimes in the future, and you’re saying you think there is no deterrent.

Wiesel: I don’t think it’s a deterrent, but is… a person who is really a killer is so taken by death that that person is no longer afraid of death. By giving death, that person has given his own death, and therefore, I don’t think that this capital punishment would prevent… other people may, may say I’m wrong, and I’m sure they have good arguments, but there is something in me, I have seen too much death.

Heffner: And your sympathy for those who need, somehow or other to have revenge or vengeance?

Wiesel: Oh, vengeance is never a real response. Justice can be a response.

Heffner: But why is vengeance not a… if it weren’t would there be our ability to say “Vengeance is mine, sayeth the Lord.” There must be vengeance.

Wiesel: It reduces the tragedy.

Heffner: Why? Why does it reduce it?

Wiesel: Suppose… I’m not even speaking about what happened in the last World War, but suppose a son whose father was killed by a murderer… okay… that son goes and kills the murderer, so you have… what? The tragedy then is, is not as true as it was before, there is something else now in the equation.

Heffner: You… I’ve always known you to be a deeply sympathetic person, a person deeply sympathetic to the needs of others. That need to wreak revenge, that need to find some outlet for the angers and the hurts and the damage that’s been done. You must be sympathetic to that need.

Wiesel: Oh, I… I’m surely not sympathetic to the killer, you may be sure of that.

Heffner: No. no.

Wiesel: I am not. But I, on the contrary, I try to… I try to think that in, in convincing the son of the victim, the daughter of the victim that vengeance is not the answer, I’m helping that person. Vengeance is an impulsive act, it lasts a minute, and then what? Whereas if justice instead of vengeance and memory instead of vengeance. Memory is the best vengeance. What the killer is really afraid of is the memory of a person, remembering that he or she has killed. Also bring it back now in, in my example. If we had wanted to become avengers, I mean my contemporaries, my peers, we would have set Europe on fire, and there would have been no one to condemn us. If we had given in to vengeance, can you imagine these thousands of young people who are just come out from the forests as partisans of the death camps, as inmates… weapons were all around us, we could have taken weapons, we could have gone anywhere and killed.

Heffner: Elie, was that not done at all?

Wiesel: I think it was done by Russian war prisoners and really, I don’t condemn them. On the contrary, I’m telling you that I have seen it, I understand that the day the camp was liberated they took weapons and they went to Weimar and they became avengers. Which is normal. I think among those Jewish inmates who survived their ordeal, I don’t think there were many, I don’t even know one, but I imagine there must have been a few. But we really didn’t do that.

Heffner: Because of your religion?


Wiesel: No. Oh, no I really…

Heffner: Because of your training?

Wiesel: I was too young for thinking in those terms. I was sick so in my case, it’s… I don’t think I would have done it, but I may have, I’m not sure. But it’s something else, I think self-preservation, perhaps. Where do you stop? Somebody who comes out from, let’s say, from Auschwitz or Buchenwald, where do you begin? You know where to begin… the SS first, right? But then for many SS where do you stop? Then there were support groups who helped the SS. Where do you stop? And then the by-standers and then you go back to Hungary… there were quite a few Hungarian fascists who helped the SS in my own town they hurt and they beat up Jews more than the Germans did. The same is true of Rumania and Poland and the Ukraine. Where do you stop? It would be… it would be a bloodbath.

Heffner: So that you, again, find at the basis for one’s personal morality a sense of survival.

Wiesel: Oh, I think that it worked out that way and I think… it wasn’t conscious. I don’t think it was a conscious decision… we cannot start taking vengeance because then we wouldn’t stop. But it was something, in Hebrew you call it —”Schut avot,” the merit of our fathers, ancestral merit. There was someone in my, my subconscious that helped me, that saved me. My grandfather? Or my great- grandfather, said, “don’t do that, it’s not for you. We have never done that.” Jewish history for two thousand years was the history of violence and persecution, and imagine if we had taken vengeance each time. Wouldn’t be us, first of all.

Heffner: Yes, but you know… I’m, I’m trying to get back to the question of the origin of how one takes the moral responsibility for decisions. Your statement that you must deal with everything in terms of its moral…

Wiesel: Absolutely.

Heffner: …consequences, it’s moral… of a sense of moral responsibility, where does that sense come from?

Wiesel: It comes from learning, from absorbing, from remembering. My memory did not begin with me. My memory began before me, and if my memory absorbs all the other memories, it becomes a kind of collective repository, and then at one point, of course, when you grow up, if I grow up, I do realize that whatever I do now, I commit not only my own name, and my own honor and my own life, but the name and the honor of my predecessors. If I do something wrong then my grandfather, somehow, is at stake… his honor is at stake, Moses’ honor is at stake. When you think in those terms, then you are careful.

Heffner: Whatever we do we must do in moral terms, we must measure in moral terms… we can’t assume that there is anonymity, we can’t assume that question that you answered, whether it is about capital punishment or about any of the numbers of moral issues before us will be the same as others do. Where, then, whose terms…

Wiesel: Oh, I wouldn’t even say…

Heffner: Which is right and which is wrong?

Wiesel: Sure, I wouldn’t even say that those who are for capital punishment are immoral, absolutely not. They explained it very well and… very well, and I understand them. They have their own argument and their own reasons, and their own humanity. When they say “we want to prevent further murder,” they have an argument.

Heffner: Well, then…

Wiesel: It’s personal, that’s why it’s a very personal attitude.

Heffner: But how do we then deal with this question of measuring whatever we do in moral terms? Are you asking only that we be sure to think and feel in those terms whatever they may be for us?

Wiesel: Sure, but also I think it’s a kind of opening. I would like it, whatever I do, with certainly, there should be a small spark of uncertainty… ”maybe I’m wrong, and I think that is the name for morality, for ethical, ethical uncertainty… “I am not so sure.” And I can push it very far then, of course. What about the murderer? Am I sure the murderer, then, is always wrong? If I say I have to be uncertain, maybe the murderer is right, no… there is a limit. There are limits, of course. And what is, what is Judaism? A set of limits. That’s how it began, you don’t go beyond the limit. In the beginning it was monotheism, or “Thou shalt not kill”… limits, and I’m too Jewish not to accept limits.


Heffner: Ambiguity… too Jewish not to be involved in those ambiguities.

Wiesel: Also, with limits. I accept the ambiguity because again there the tolerance in Jewish ideologies or doctrines is beautiful. The Talmud which is one of the great masterworks of all times is full of ambiguity and full of dialogue. The only, the only body of work in recorded history where the minority’s views have been prevailed… have been preserved. It’s nothing but dialogue. Once you have a sentence in which four generations of scholars have participated. An example of tolerance and understanding so, it is there, but the limits must also be there.

Heffner: Whenever we speak I’m convinced that first there was the word… no, first there was the question…

Wiesel: The question.

Heffner: …and this seems to be so basic to, to your thinking about everything.

Wiesel: Do you know… let me ask you something. What was the first question…

Heffner: (Laughter) See, I knew there had to be a question.

Wiesel: The first question in the Bible…

Heffner: What is it?

Wiesel: What is it?

Heffner: (Laughter) I don’t know, Elie.

Wiesel: (Laughter) The first question in the Bible was not asked actually by man, logically it should be man asking of God, “Who am I? What am I doing here? (Laughter) Why did you bring me here? Why did you create me?” Not at all. The first question is when Adam flees from God and God asks “Ahyecha,” “where are thou?” This is the first question in the Bible. And there is a marvelous story. A great Hasidic master. He was a philosopher, a mystic, a very great man in Hasidism. He was in jail, the warden of the jail was a biblical scholar, so he came to see and he said, “Rabbi, I heard you were here, I know you are a great scholar, you must answer me something. In Genesis I read that God asked “Ahyecha,” “Where are thou?” Is it conceivable that God didn’t know where Adam was?” And the Rabbi answered, “God knew, Adam didn’t.”

Heffner: That’s why you asked questions.

Wiesel: That’s why we ask questions.

Heffner: And when you asked me the question, I don’t know what the answer is.

Wiesel: Because we don’t know.

Heffner: But you say that yourself.

Wiesel: Certainly… we don’t know where we are. That’s a… I don’t know… we should know where we are and what the limits are.

Heffner: Is that part of your… I don’t want to put my words in your mouth, but is that… does that relate at all to your feelings about capital punishment, that there is still too much of a question? Not the moral equivalent here, but there is a question always about the crime.

Wiesel: But of course, but then look, the Bible is full of capital punishment, that’s very strange. I… the Bible is full of it, and you read the Bible you get the feeling you can’t do anything. If you violate the Sabbath, capital punishment. If a child is not respectful toward the parents, capital punishment. If a whole city becomes sinful, the ‘who’s city’s’ capital punishment. But, here comes the but. The laws are there, but I must not evoke them. We have very few instances of capital punishment that has been implemented. The laws are there, but we must do everything possible to go around them. If I told you in the Talmud, the extraordinary ways our sages have gone… the distance they have gone to avoid implementation of capital punishment. For instance, I’ll give you an example. Both of us are here in this studio, and there’s only one door to another room. In that room which has no windows, in that room, somebody’s there… a secretary’s there preparing your script or your questions or your answers or your research. Up suddenly a man comes, her lover, who is disappointed, with a knife, “where is she?” and she runs there, he runs inside and here you and I hear her screaming. He comes out and blood on his knife. What do you say? Guilty? No, because we have not witnessed the crime. Now… wait. But blood, circumstantial evidence. When he comes to the tribunal and the judge say, “you confess?,” he said, “yes.” Out of court — because confession is not accepted as evidence. Remember it was two thousand years ago, self-incriminating evidence is thrown out of court and this man may go free because there were no witnesses, we need two witnesses there.


Heffner: But, Elie, one could tell this story with the sense of the glory of that tradition, or one could tell that story with the sense of how nonsensical it is to let someone who committed murder go free.

Wiesel: But you know the, the old rule… better a hundred murderers go free than one innocent die.

Heffner: Now is that… does that contribute to your feelings about capital punishment?

Wiesel: I’m sure it does. I’m sure it does. But I confess to you… here I’m confessing something… I confess… that’s not the real reason, the real reason, I don’t think it’s human to become an agent of death.

Heffner: Then you’ve just finished describing what happens in the Bible itself. Now you’ve said the words are there, the acts do not follow.

Wiesel: Right.

Heffner: But the words are there and surely there must have been sometimes when vengeance was the Lord’s, when an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, and a life for a life… no? Never?

Wiesel: Eye for an eye was misinterpreted. It was never an eye for an eye. But it really meant, again… let’s start again, the beauty of biblical tradition…

Heffner: Is the ambiguity. (Laughter)

Wiesel: Not only that, no. If God gave the law, once God gave the law, it is up to us to interpret it, and once we interpret it, God abides by our interpretation. So, therefore, an eye for an eye is not an eye for an eye, it is compensation. It would be savage to ask of a person to take out another person’s eye… so what? The other person simply has to pay damages. Compensation today, insurance, that’s what it means.

Heffner: Elie, we’re going to have to talk future times about similar moral choices that individuals have to make. I appreciate your joining me today for this discussion. Thank you. And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time. And if you care to share your thoughts about today’s program, today’s theme, today’s topic, please write to THE OPEN MIND, P. O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150. For transcripts send $2.00 in check or money order. Meanwhile, as another old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”

Continuing production of this series has generously been made possible by grants from: the Rosalind P. Walter Foundation; the M. Weiner Foundation of New Jersey; The Mediators and Richard and Gloria Manney; The Edythe and Dean Dowling Foundation; Lawrence A. Wien; the New York Times Company Foundation; and, from the corporate community, Mutual of America.