Although it was half a lifetime ago for me, I remember watching the film Dead Man Walking in a high school religious studies class. I also remember that this single film affected me deeply and challenged whatever limited thoughts I had had on the death penalty at that point.
Now that I am currently in Texas, I took the occasion to read this fascinating transcript of a conversation between Debbie Morris, Helen Prejean, and Rabbi Elie Spitz on Krista Tippett’s program On Being.
As the moment of the man’s execution approached, Morris said:
Debbie Morris was abducted and raped by a man who was eventually killed by capital punishment. In the interview, she discusses her ambivalence about his execution and describes her reason for wanting her perpetrator dead as having been motivated more by fear of him than out of a desire for revenge.
And I realized on the night of the execution that a big part of it was that I was beginning to panic and become desperate that when this man finally paid the greatest price that he could pay here on earth, his life, that I was going to wake up the next morning and still not be better. Then what is there left for me?”
Later in the interview, Sister Helen Prejean recounts the first time she met a prisoner on death row with whom she had been corresponding:
I come onto death row. The first visit I’ll never forget. My heart was beating, my fingertips were cold, I had a cold ice band in my stomach. And this man that I’d been writing to, Patrick Sonnier, I mean, in the back of my mind I think I had the image of a monster, and here the guard brings in this man, all chained hands, legs, and he brings him into this booth, and I looked through this mesh screen. I went, ‘Oh, my God! He’s a human being!’ I looked into his eyes, and he was smiling. And he said, Sister, you came. I’m so glad to see you.’ I couldn’t believe how human he was. And you, kind of like your soul’s a magnet moving. And this, I guess, is what compassion does in us, it allows us to experience goodness in people, even in people who have done unspeakable evil. There’s more to every human being than the evil they have done. Me, too, all of us. We’re more than the worst act of our lives, all of us.
The other day I was visiting the Houston Holocaust Museum. And, as when I had visited the Wannsee Conference Museum in Berlin, I paused to contemplate the humanness of the Nazis who had orchestrated “The Final Solution” by staring for a few minutes at the headshots of Nazis in their uniforms.
I remember being particularly struck by the photo of Adolf Eichmann, both at the Wannsee Museum and in the Houston one. Like Sister Prejean, it is as though I went, ‘Oh, my God! He’s a human being!”
It seems that we cannot restore humanity by dehumanizing perpetrators of evil acts since every perpetrator is, first and foremost, a human being.