Elie Wiesel

Capital Punishment

VTR Date: May 5, 1995

Guest: Wiesel, Elie


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Elie Wiesel
Title: Capital Punishment
VTR: 5/5/95

Whatever paths nations follow or overarching choices mankind makes about issues that universally claim our attention, surely it is instead whatever individual men and women, you and we, decide and then do about these issues much closer to home and hearth that truly looms larger. So that whatever we do must be measured in personal moral terms.

I’m Richard Heffner. My friend and colleague is Elie Wiesel, distinguished writer, novelist, teacher, much-honored Nobel Peace Prize winner. Together our dialogues will examine what may be considered the moral responsibility of the private person in dealing with each of many issues facing us today; those ranging from racism to the proper role of the intellectual in our lives, from the proper limits on extending life at its beginning and at its ending, to education for what, for whom? Today our dialogue will focus on capital punishment.

And Elie, I’d like to begin our program by asking moral dimension is? How can you look at capital punishment in terms of our moral responsibility?

WIESEL: Well, traditionally capital punishment is here either to punish someone who has committed a capital crime, or to deter, deter other people from doing the same thing. Personally I am against capital punishment.


WIESEL: I don’t think that we should serve as instruments or agents of the angel of death. There’s something wrong in that. We should always celebrate life. Whatever we do we must affirm life, not only the beauty or the justice or the truth inherent in life, but life. Simply living is an extraordinary adventure. It happens only once to the person in us, or the person that we are. And therefore I don’t like to think that we are here to kill even a killer.

HEFFNER: But it’s so strange when you say you “don’t like to think,” there seems to me to be lurking behind that…

WIESEL: The “but”…

HEFFNER: …the “but,” the compulsion.

WIESEL: Again, first of all let’s say why I am against. I mean maybe we’ll try to see there are hesitations, or certain recalcitrance. Also, I don’t like the spectacle. Meaning, the execution of a person is a spectacle. In times past, the nineteenth century, the eighteenth century, there were people who would come. In France, during the revolution, the French Revolution, there were crowds and crowds who would gather in the morning, waiting. And they would, you know, the women would knit and people would talk, and they would do whatever they wanted to do while watching an amusing, entertaining spectacle of a person being put to death. And there was a ritual, with the judges coming and then the hangman coming and his… I don’t think that any death of a person, a human being, should be a spectacle.

Today it’s different, although it’s a new, a new era even in that field. I think until thirty, forty years ago, people could see, could watch the execution of a man. Now you have journalists, you have the judges, the prosecutor and the warden and the police; it is also a ritual. That is not something that I will approve of.

HEFFNER: Well it’s interesting that even a television station – I believe it was a public television station asked for the right to televise an execution, to televise capital punishment; but mostly on the grounds that if it were televised, the horror that you feel and that others feel would be conveyed to the public and the demand, and you must grant that there is a demand for capital punishment today, would be diminished.

WIESEL: That is possible. But at the same time it would also, it would or it could, inspire a candidate for murder to do precisely that because there’s a strange distortion in the psyche of a murderer. The murderer usually wants to be in the frontline; he wants to be on stage. I’m not speaking about those who are, let’s say, trying to rob a bank and then kill an agent or a bank teller. I mean a murderer want to be a murderer, meaning someone who has done something that has not been done before to that person. We are born once, we die once. So he’s doing it. And therefore when we give him this person the opportunity to appear in, you know in court, there he is, or she. He’s at the center. And at the center, he or she remains until the last minute. And maybe in his distorted mind, it would be an appeal.

HEFFNER: But you know, Elie, before you talked about taking life, the state taking life, the society taking life, as a denial of the affirmation that you want to make of life itself. But aren’t we, in terms of capital punishment, at the same time affirming the value of life by taking the life of the person who took other lives?

WIESEL: Here comes the “but”. The “but” really is there are certain cases where I’m very close to saying, “Well there must be exceptions.” But, the general rule really should be I think, no capital punishment, with exceptions. I’ll give you the example of Israel. In Israel there is no capital punishment, except; except for those Nazis who have committed crimes against humanity or crimes against the Jewish people. The only person who was executed in Israel was Adolf Eichmann, the only one. So they have, they have that rule. The rule is no capital punishment.


WIESEL: But. Look, recently when we saw the Oklahoma, for instance, the Oklahoma tragedy, or disaster, or crime; it’s a nightmare. And then, you know, a hundred, two hundred people, so many children, you saw the faces of the children, and there is something of course in every one of us, in me too, saying, “Well maybe what we should do there is teach those murderers a lesson,” and say, “Ok, now you pay with your life.” So there are, I would say there are exceptions.

HEFFNER: Elie, are you saying that here is another “but”, here is another exception for you?

WIESEL: I cannot really give you an opinion which is ironclad. I don’t have it. I will always say “but.” That means I would say, here I would say maybe, and yet, but. I don’t want to make it easy.

HEFFNER: But there are areas, and I’ve heard you speak about those areas where you would say an ironclad rule, this is the case, we must take moral responsibility for our acts, and you have not said “but.”

WIESEL: That’s true. Look, like war. War is also murder. It’s a mass murder, collective murder. And I’m against war. God knows, I’m against war. I have seen what war can do to people, the grotesque stupidity of war. There’s no glorification, the glory in war. However, there is a just war. For instance, the fight that the Allied nations had undertaken, the war against Hitler was a just war. And yet, how many people were killed in that war? Thousands, hundreds of thousands of brave Allied soldiers; we should always be grateful to them and their example, and their parents and their friends. So, there’s a “but”, naturally. But there is a limit. And therefore, I feel maybe we should think about it and see that at a certain point, that capital punishment should be considered.

HEFFNER: Now, you ask questions. You don’t give answers.

WIESEL: Naturally.

HEFFNER: Let me ask you the question: is there some way of defining exceptions?

WIESEL: Children. To me, children, it means murder of children would surely deserve to be an exception.


WIESEL: Because children represent innocence, helplessness. We bring children into this world because we want these children to take over, to become custodians of our fears, of our hopes. And they should shape tomorrow’s world which must, thanks to them, be a better one. And here comes a wanton murderer and with one bullet, simply because that child was there or these children were there, with one bullet…

HEFFNER: Or bomb.

WIESEL: Or bomb. Or gas, like in Japan. I think that something must be done. Maybe there’s another answer, as harsh as death. But something harsh must be envisaged to discourage those people and punish them.

HEFFNER: But you’re sense of harshness, really it seems to me derives from the affirmation of life, that there is no equivalent to taking a life.

WIESEL: No. But maybe there is. Maybe we don’t have enough imagination. Maybe there is, let’s think about it. But at least I would like, for instance, if I could offer something to the law professors, or law deans, and scholars and judges to have, really a kind of confidence and see, is there anything which is as harsh as death that is not death? Maybe.

HEFFNER: Yes, but Elie, we’re not talking about the deans of law schools and the professors of law. Obviously we’re talking about the people who go to the polls and vote in ever larger numbers for those who want capital punishment. So that we’re talking about a people not… I don’t, you wouldn’t characterize it as a blood thirst but it almost seems that way.

WIESEL: No, no, no I think they want justice. I see it on television. After a trial, for instance, when the parents or the children of the victim and they come, they say, “No, we want justice,” meaning death penalty. But that is because they haven’t been given the opportunity, or the option of something else. I don’t know. I would still believe, I believe you know in encounters. I believe in people meeting, simply to try to explore an issue and see where it leads. Maybe there’s an other opportunity given to them and to the judges, and to the lawmakers to say, well, it is so harsh that you will discourage.

HEFFNER: But you know, when you said, when you talked about the times that we do choose to take life, as in war; war is beyond my control, it is beyond your control, but capital punishment is not. You can vote and indeed you must vote at times, choose between this person who is suggesting capital punishment and that person who says moral responsibility that I must take for my decisions, no capital punishment.

WIESEL: Dick, again, to tell you it is clear in my mind, I cannot. I understand those people who want capital punishment for certain capital crimes. But I cannot tell you that I would like to see me, myself, giving you a kind of judgment that this is how it should be. Maybe we should have, I don’t know, built something on an island and there should be mandatory life imprisonment with harsh conditions. And that would… I don’t know, but life, for life…. The Bible says yes.


WIESEL: And I am a student of the Bible. I love the Bible. The Bible says yes, naturally.

HEFFNER: Again and again and again?

WIESEL: Again and again and again. But in the Bible we have so many laws that deal with capital punishment, that impose capital punishment, but the laws are never to be implemented.

HEFFNER: What do you mean?

WIESEL: The laws are there in the book, but they’re not implemented. For instance, in the Bible it says that a child, a rebellious child, meaning, who insults the parents or offends the father or the mother; capital punishment, that, to stoning. But, Talmud right away says but this has never happened, and never will happen. Wait, never will happen! There are certain laws like that. There are very harsh laws in the Bible. Let’s say, for homosexuality; in the Bible, capital punishment. And yet, it was never implemented. So there is too, there’s a law in the Talmud, in the Bible, forgive me, the Bible, saying that anyone who comes to kill you, you better kill him first. But how do you know? If you ask, it is too late. All these I believe, really comes to tell us that, wait. Ponder it. Maybe the conclusion will be at this point in time that you must do it, because there is no other choice. However I would like, you know, to wait a little bit. But I understand that. When I saw these children in Oklahoma, I was taken, seized with rage.

HEFFNER: It’s hard for me to see you, seized with rage.

WIESEL: It’s quiet rage, silent rage. I was… I saw the faces of the children. I saw the one policeman, a marvelous policeman, who saved – who thought he saved the child, a baby, and he said, “It’s my baby.” It wasn’t his, but it became his. It was that.

HEFFNER: Do you think that the Biblical sentence of death – as you suggest for many, many, many infringements upon our general code, the punishment is death and yet, it doesn’t happen – do you think that’s the Bible’s recognition of that rage, and of the need to assuage that rage, the need to be sympathetic toward those of us who feel such anger to those who have murdered our children?

WIESEL: Maybe, but I think on the surface it’s a simple act of God, saying, “I give life and you have no right remove it, to efface it, to erase it, to kill it. And since you have done it? I am the owner of life, I am the master of life,” says God; all life, mine, yours, anyone’s, which means the victim’s and the killer’s. So God says, “Alright, you have taken life. I’ll take yours.”

HEFFNER: But that isn’t what “an eye for an eye” means, is it?

WIESEL: Oh, “an eye for an eye” is not that. “Eye for an eye” is really, in the Bible, was misinterpreted. That means the value of. It has been immediately interpreted in the Talmud. It means the value of an eye. If somebody took out my eye, I’m not going to take out his. It simply means that, damages, he has to pay damages for what I have lost in losing my eyesight.

HEFFNER: But don’t you think that those who argue for the deterrent effect of capital punishment by saying there is too much of that, the value of we equate a life, the taking of a life, with fifteen years in jail, twenty years in jail, whatever it might be, and therefore there is no deterrence?

WIESEL: Dick, again, I really cannot answer you on that. Because I understand pain, I understand the pain of the father whose child has been killed. I understand the pain of the people who have become orphaned. But, to come out and say I am, therefore, for capital punishment; I cannot hear myself say that.

HEFFNER: One thing you don’t say. And that is, perhaps there’s a mistake. A mistake has been made, or we have identified the wrong person, we have identified the wrong persons responsible for this act. That doesn’t…?

WIESEL: Although I know that there have been cases of mistaken identity and so forth, but there were so few. But I’m telling you, here’s what I read from books or newspapers, what I heard from tele, or several writers who knew judges and so forth. But I think that today, the process in America, the United States, after all is almost ironclad. It goes from one court to another, and then to the Supreme Court after all. And I have faith in the Supreme Court. So, I know some cases were misjudged. Nevertheless, I don’t think that’s a problem, although it would be a horrible problem. But what mainly preoccupies me, worries me, is to institutionalize death. I cannot see myself do that, to accept it.

HEFFNER: Now in Israel, you say there is no capital punishment, with that exception of the Nazi war crime.

WIESEL: Which means once the last Nazi war criminal will die, it’s finished. There will be no other.

HEFFNER: Is this because of the assumption, and I think you share it, that there has been no other crime the equal of the Holocaust and there could not be?

WIESEL: It’s a unique event. I still believe it’s a unique event. It’s unique, with universal implications and applications of course.

HEFFNER: Elie, from the beginning of our relationship, back years and years and years ago, in our first Open Mind programs…

WIESEL: Both of us were younger.

HEFFNER: Well, let’s not talk about that. You’ve insisted upon, and I know this means a great deal to you, the uniqueness, the absolute uniqueness, one time only quality of the Holocaust. In the years since, you and I have seen so much going on in the world around us that other people refer to as Holocausts.

WIESEL: I don’t accept that. It’s a dilution. It’s a very sensitive area, because God knows, I would not want to appear as someone who is indifferent or insensitive to the suffering of those minorities in some countries that are being killed and persecuted and humiliated, in many lands and many continents. But to compare it to Auschwitz is wrong. There was only one. There should never be another one. And once we say there were many, there may be many again. I don’t think there could be or there should be. Remember, the law was illegal in Germany. It was the law that every Jew, any Jew not only can, but must be killed. It was the law. A million and a half Jewish children were destroyed, murdered. That didn’t happen to any other people, and I’m glad it didn’t in a way. Because why, why should other people suffer the way we did? We tell the tale of our nightmare and of our darkness, in order to prevent other people from entering that nightmare or being penetrated by that nightmare.

HEFFNER: You know, it’s strange, we do these dialogues to talk about contemporary problems and I find myself inevitably drawn back to the discussion of the Holocaust. You’re not doing it. I’m doing it. And, I wonder, we have talked about memory in the past; I have such an overwhelming sense that your vision of, your understanding of, your picture of the Holocaust and that shared by others who are its direct victims, is slowly but surely disappearing.

WIESEL: Of course. That is my anguish. Soon the last survivor will be gone, and then what? Even today, while we are still alive, there are people who deny our own experience. They are the most vicious anti-Semites in history who say that we didn’t lose our parents; that we did not see what we have seen, that we did not endure what we have endured. It is so vicious. It’s so ugly that I would never grant them the dignity of a debate. But I am worried. Of course on the other hand, there are so many books now, so many documents, so many artifacts, museums and then, courses. Anyone who, I’ll say fifty years from now, will want to know, will know where to go to and find material on the subject. But the witnesses will not be there. But on the other hand, again, I would believe that anyone who listens to a witness becomes a witness. So all those, who are our students, our children, children’s children, who listen to our tale become custodians of that tale.

HEFFNER: In a sense, you have frequently expressed that point of view, not just in terms of the Holocaust, but in terms of the Jewish tradition: all those who have listened to us, and we listen to others, and listen to others. What will the message be in relation, if I may refer back to it again, this question of capital punishment? What does the tradition…?

WIESEL: Well the tradition again, the tradition is, there is capital punishment.

HEFFNER: But you said…

WIESEL: But the when you study, there, the Talmudic interpretation, of the Talmud, is so extraordinary. The Talmudic interpretation of these laws is so human. For instance, no person can be indicted, condemned, unless there were two witnesses watching the person doing what the person did. Even then, that person had to be warned before committing the act.

HEFFNER: You mean we are watching.

WIESEL: Watching, at least, if the person was not warned, it’s thrown out of court even if there were not two witnesses. It’s again; murder means not to follow a warning, and to do it in front of witnesses. Even then, the witnesses who come, the two witnesses, they are being, too, interrogated and cross-examined to the degree of torture. In a way, the judges were hoping maybe they will contradict themselves. “Oh, well they will then we will withdraw.” Even then, if they told the truth, they are told, “Now you should know you are the first to throw the stones. The first! So don’t think you can simply say what you are saying and get away, and get home and drink water, and eat bread. You cannot. If you said something, it commits you.” And there are so many laws about it. For instance, in ancient times whenever a capital case was brought before a tribunal, the tribunal was composed of twenty-three judges, twenty-three. Now, if the verdict was guilty, unanimously: thrown out of court.

HEFFNER: Explain that, please.

WIESEL: Because it was inconceivable.

HEFFNER: (Laughter)

WIESEL: First of all, to find twenty-three Jews who would be unanimous on anything… But the main thing, also, they couldn’t believe that from out of twenty-three judges, who are judging one person alone – at that time they didn’t have defense lawyers – not one should feel sorry for that man and come up with something? But here comes the idea. Suppose one judge was convinced that this defendant is innocent. Now if he says “Innocent,” then he will die. In order to save the defendant, he must vote with the others to make it unanimous. So what should the judge do? You see, to show you the complication, the complexity of the issue of capital punishment in Talmudic law and the biblical law.

HEFFNER: Now, how is that translated? I know from what you say, how it is translated in Israel, with one exception.


HEFFNER: Do you find that to be translated the same way amongst Jews outside of Israel?

WIESEL: There is today, I don’t know, there is a movement within, I hope it is a small group, the Jewish community. And I get letters, you know, ugly horrible letters from people who believe in the abolition of gun control. And they wanted me to defend their situation, to be in possession of guns. And I am against it. I am for gun control. And they say the same thing. They say, look, we must defend ourselves and therefore, you know, kill those who come to kill us. I don’t believe that. I believe in America we still live in a free democracy, and therefore I must have faith in our institutions and our ability as a society to be lawful.

HEFFNER: Even as our institutions, our laws come increasingly to embrace capital punishment.

WIESEL: But then, there it’s again; it’s the law, the law of the land. I may disagree, but it’s the law of the land.

HEFFNER: Elie, we come to end of this program. Sometime we must talk about that matter of obedience always to the law of the land. In the meantime thank you for joining me again today, and our dialogue.

WIESEL: Thank you.