Communion Of Dreams

Revenge? Justice?
December 30, 2008, 3:23 pm
Filed under: Civil Rights, Constitution, Government, MetaFilter, Religion, Society, Violence

This will not be an easy post to read. If you’re looking for something light and happy, move along.

So, when is something an act of revenge and torture? And when is it a simple act of justice?

A doctor can remove your hand to save you from death by gangrene, or a doctor can remove your hand as a state-sanctioned punishment. What is the difference?

I’m going to be very up-front about my bias here: my father was murdered, and were it up to me his killer would have been put to death just as soon as there was no reasonable doubt that he was guilty of the crime. That’s a simple hankering after revenge. I also think that there is a legitimate case to be made that it makes sense for the State to execute murderers, but that’s not what I want to talk about here. Rather I just mention this so you know where my bias is.

A man blinds a woman who has rejected his offer of marriage. Does it with acid. What punishment does he deserve? Can you envision being blinded with acid could be a legitimate, state-sanctioned punishment? Now wait, there’s more to the story:

Late last month, an Iranian court ordered that five drops of the same chemical be placed in each of her attacker’s eyes, acceding to Bahrami’s demand that he be punished according to a principle in Islamic jurisprudence that allows a victim to seek retribution for a crime. The sentence has not yet been carried out.

The implementation of corporal punishments allowed under Islamic law, including lashing, amputation and stoning, has often provoked controversy in Iran, where many people have decried such sentences as barbaric. This case is different.

Yes, it is different. The usual sentence under the law is for the offending person to pay “blood money” compensation to his victim. And in the society where women are not valued as much as men, this penalty can be a small amount – enough so that such acid attacks are on the rise. But there is one way in which men and women are equal under the law: she can demand retribution. In this case, literally an ‘eye for an eye’. From the same article:

“At an age at which I should be putting on a wedding dress, I am asking for someone’s eyes to be dripped with acid,” she said in a recent interview, as rain poured against the windows of her parents’ small apartment in a lower-middle-class neighborhood of Tehran. “I am doing that because I don’t want this to happen to any other women.”

Some officials also said the punishment would be a deterrent.

“If propaganda is carried out on how acid attackers are punished, it will prevent such crimes in the future,” Mahmoud Salarkia, deputy attorney general of Tehran, told reporters after the court issued its ruling.

OK, revenge? Justice?

I spent a good deal of time reading about this case, and the reactions that people have to it, over on MeFi. Here’s a good comment I want to share:

Cruelty isn’t justice.

There is no such thing as justice. Some wrongs, once perpetrated, can never be undone, balanced, or compensated for. Justice is a fiction we permit ourselves to aid in codifying society’s response to rule breakers. If we do too little, we live at the mercy of the most brutal among us. If we do too much, we become the most brutal among us. So we try to find a middle ground, and we call that justice, and try to forget that there is no magic formula for deterring violence or relieving the victims of cruelty. A cruel and brutal response to cruelty and brutality absolutely can and does continue the cycle. Unfortunately, a measured and merciful response to cruelty and brutality doesn’t necessarily break the cycle, either. So we aim for whatever measure of consistency best helps us sleep at night. And as always, your mileage will vary.

And here’s an excerpt from another:

Laws are a citizen’s primary education in justice, and Shari’ah is quite clear. Women living under Shari’ah are second-class citizens from the perspective of testimony, inheritance, marriage, and divorce. Two female witnesses are needed to convict one man, a woman inherits half of what her brother will receive, Muslim women may not marry non-Muslim men, but Muslim men may marry non-Muslim women, (plus polygamy is allowed but not polyandry,) and men may initiate a divorce but women may not.

Is it any surprise that men who grow up with such laws would sometimes choose to destroy the face of their beloved? Shari’ah law enforces a sexist double standard that disadvantages women, and so everyone treats them as disadvantaged. Such legal standards have a strong educative effect: they persuade citizens of their justice because they are backed by the tripartite authorities of tradition, the state’s allegedly justified violence, and God’s Word. Yet within that tradition, from the position of an authorized jurist, and with the backing of an alternative interpretation of Scripture, there are plenty of nuances and interpretive freedoms that would allow a jurist to steer Shari’ah towards more progressive ends.

The one place where women aren’t supposed to be unequal is in regards to their equality before Allah. Thus, in matters of retribution, they deserve the same protections that a man would receive. Unfortunately, so many of the other procedural inequalities don’t really allow that, which is why this seemingly barbarous punishment is the best way to achieve equal procedural consideration for women and men: the question before the court was equality or patriarchy, and it has chosen equality. Equality, in this case, means judicial blinding.

Without laws that are basically fair and equitable, how can we expect citizens to relate to each other as equals? And without equality, how can there be an end to the acid, for both victims and perpetrators?

There’s a lot to make you think – and think hard – in that thread, about what is the nature of justice and revenge. We make the assumption now that jail time is the appropriate form of punishment for almost all serious crimes, fines for lesser ones. But those forms of punishment do not hit all equally, nor do they really seem to work particularly well. Then add in the layer that in this situation, in this country, a woman getting equal treatment under the law is actually progress.

As I said, I have a bias. I am of the opinion that there are many crimes which when committed, place one outside the usual humane treatment of society (as an aside, that’s what the term “outlaw” actually used to mean – that you were outside the protection of the law, and could be attacked and even murdered without legal retribution.) If you do thus-and-such, you no longer deserve to be treated humanely. Murder, torture, maiming – these are such crimes, as far as I am concerned. I’d have no problems at all with the punishment of blinding by acid for what this man did.

But I’m not sure I’d want our society to function that way.

So, revenge? Justice?


Jim Downey

(Cross posted to UTI.)

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