I listened to an interview with the German director Werner Herzog on Sunday. I’m not very familiar with Herzog’s brand of filmmaking but his goal of seeing the “ecstatic truth” of individual circumstances is intriguing. Herzog was discussing his newest movie, “Into the Abyss.” The movie examines the case of Texas inmate Michael Perry, who was executed in 2010 after killing a woman, her son, and his friend.
Herzog is a staunch opponent of the death penalty. But instead of appealing to a sense of injustice in touting the wrongfully accused or following a death row inmate with a probable shot of being freed, Herzog selects an unsympathetic subject whose claims of innocence are decidedly doubtful.
At one point in the movie, Herzog interviews the daughter of the woman Perry murdered. She has supported the death penalty for Perry and is a witness to his death. He asks her if she thinks Jesus Christ would support the death penalty. The woman, ostensibly a Christian, says no. She understands the contradiction but her pain and desire for closure overwhelms any attempt to explain it away.
The interview and film demonstrates the messiness of state sponsored killing. The feelings of victims’ families, however misguided they may seem, can’t be ignored. Herzog’s selection of Perry, who he admits he would not want to be alone with out on a dark street, challenges the neat arguments usually used to oppose the death penalty. It is easy to oppose the death penalty when talking about racially imbalanced statistics but are feelings as strong when discussing a real life murderer who admits to the crime? Are we opposed to death for the most heinous among us- rapists who kill and murder children? Are we opposed to death when it’s our mother, son, or brother who is murdered?
Hard questions with no easy answers. But it occurs to me that the complexity of these answers are what has sustained the death penalty for so long in this country. Most people want to oppose from afar, sign a petition when it becomes popular, never dare to think of what you would want if it was your parent or child. But sustained opposition, the kind that can change policy and law, requires a commitment that transcends the situation of any particular inmate, it remains when the theoretical has fallen away. Americans are just not there yet. Perhaps Herzog is right in claiming that Germans, with their horrific and tragic history of state sponsored murder just cannot tolerate any incarnation of the death penalty.