It seems to me that capital punishment is only possible when we conceive of the condemned person as “other”, whether by race or religion, appearance, or behaviour, or by their symbolic embodiment of those things which we either as individuals or societies find most threatening. If we stop thinking of them as other, capital punishment becomes unthinkable as we cease to be able to contemplate their suffering and death.
For me this happened when I read the account of the Rosenbergs’ execution and imagined Ethel Rosenberg as a woman much like my mother. For Samereh, the Iranian mother, perhaps when she slapped her son’s killer she realised that it might have been her own son standing there and Balal’s mother preparing to execute him. Balal pulled his knife when Abdollah kicked him; if Abdollah had had a knife, would he have stabbed Balal first? Or maybe Samereh just suddenly saw him for what he was, a frightened and distressed young man whom only she had the power to comfort.
Afterwards, she said that she felt at peace. If you have been in therapy you know that you cannot deal with the things you dislike about yourself by projecting those feelings into other people and metaphorically “killing” them. You can only deal with them in yourself. Anger, frustration, want, fear, pain, oppression, violence, are part of us and part of our societies. They will not go away no matter how many people we kill.
Those of us who abhor capital punishment can take comfort in the gradual reduction in the number of countries where it is practised and we can continue to try to have the conversation. As was said during the British debate on the abolition of the death penalty, it is not so much whether you can imagine doing it to others as whether you can imagine it being done to you, or to someone you love. Samereh could. Let’s hope others can too.