Monday, December 15, 2008

Keeping an eye on an-eye-for-an-eye, continued

Because of some overlap in our research interests, The Wife and I have both been paying attention to the work of William I. Miller, who has, among other things, written very insightfully about vengeance.

We had the good fortune to meet and talk to Miller at a conference in York a few years ago, where he was talking about the 'talionic' law -- nicely summed up in the phrase 'an eye for an eye' -- and you can get a good idea of some of his thinking on this topic from a 2006 interview at (via The Wife).

The question-and-answer opens like this:

Your book argues that we often use the term "eye for an eye" to describe a harsh kind of justice from the past. But talionic societies could be said to put a higher value on human life and the human body than we do. They were much more committed to finding the exact worth of body parts and lives. So, let's say you poke out my eye...

Then, instantly, my eye becomes yours. To get the value exactly right, we say an eye is worth an eye. You have a right to my eye. Now you can say to me, "I'm going to take your eye." Then I'm going to say, "Hey, what would you be willing to accept instead?" It becomes an initial bargaining position.

If you want victims to be more highly valued and you want real, adequate compensation, this is how to do it. Now if I offer you what some lousy insurance company says your eye is worth -- say, $100,000 -- you'll say, "No way! I would never have let you take my eye for that." Instead, you can be sure I'll put the same value on not losing my eye that you would have put on yours, and I will pay you that amount to keep my own eye. How about $5 million? Let's start there. And we'll bargain it out.

Later, Miller again offers a defence for the notion of revenge:

When people compare modern ideas of justice with the old idea of "eye for an eye," they often talk about the difference between justice and revenge.

There is no difference. The literature on punishment and retribution, the philosophical and legal literature, doesn't understand revenge. They talk about revenge as going postal, the lawless, crazed overvaluation of your own harm. But if you look at real honor cultures and real revenge cultures, they were measurers and proportionalists to the extreme. What they would call revenge is simply paying back exactly what was owed. No more, no less.

The law of the talion was not a law issued by a government to regulate criminal matters. It was tort law, a compensation principle dictating how much private party A owes private party B for the harm A did to B.

Although I think he's sometimes being a bit deliberately provocative (not that there's anything wrong with that), I find Miller's comments on vengeance to be pretty convincing, not least since I've spent a certain amount of research effort examining the difficult social transition away from more direct, personal and physical forms of punishment to more mediated, state-oriented and less violent ones.

I commented on this in more detail earlier this year.

So far, so abstract, but I had to think of Miller's comments when I ran across an article at the Washington Post yesterday about Ameneh Bahrami, an Iranian woman who was blinded and disfigured four years ago when Majid Movahedi, a young man whose offer of marriage she rejected, dumped a bucket of acid over her head.

It is a horrendous story of physical torment, but what links it to Miller's comments above is that Bahrami has now turned to the same kind of 'talionic' principles that are still central to Islamic law:
With little left to lose, Bahrami took the unusual step of asking the court for qisas, or eye-for-an-eye retribution as allowed under Islamic law.

Courts usually order families of the accused to pay "blood money" for the crimes. But Bahrami insisted on the punishment.
This means:

Movahedi was sentenced to five drips of sulfuric acid in each eye. His father said he was "incredibly sorry" for what had happened. "If Ameneh is really blind, the verdict against my son must be implemented," he said.

Under Iranian law, a convict has 20 days to appeal the verdict. If Movahedi fails to do so, the punishment will be carried out on a date decided by the judiciary.

Movahedi, the article says, seems to show no remorse for what he did, nor does he even seem to understand that what he did was wrong:

More than two weeks ago, Movahedi was led into court by two policemen. He showed no remorse when the court ruled on the case. When the judge asked whether he was ready for his punishment, Movahedi said that he still loved Bahrami but that if she asked for his eyes to be taken out, he would seek the same punishment for her.

"They must also completely empty out her eyes, since I'm not sure that she cannot secretly see," he said. "The newspapers have made this a huge case, but I haven't done anything bad."

While I wouldn't advocate introducing these methods into our legal system -- or argue that this case redeems all of the other things that are troubling about Islamic law -- I have to admit that not only did I not recoil in horror at the sentence, I can even feel the justice of this decision, regardless of whether or not it serves as a deterrent against other such attacks.

And I don't consider myself to be a particularly bloodthirsty person.

But maybe I'm wrong about that.

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