Sunday, 4 April 2010

The Talion Tendency.


Eye for an Eye...

Here in Britain, there has been much talk of "eye for an eye" since Jon Venables made his comeback as the media's favourite personification of evil, the manifestation of all that is "broken" about Britain, and so on. The mass-media love a moral crusade, saving us from "video nasties" and "Facebooker sexual predators", but not when the Israeli government slaughtered over 1,400 Palestinians or when NATO forces killed 90 Afghan children in a bombing campaign. The intention of the moral panics kicked up around "video nasties" in the 1980s was to gather support for Thatcherite restrictions on videos. The same is true of the coverage of violent incidents involving Facebook, the implicit message is "Ban Facebook". But these are not the subject of this article. The subject is the warped logic behind the support of capital punishment by many misguided individuals in this country. The logic: eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth. This often quoted phrase originates in the Bible, specifically Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy. The latter two books being principled advocates of genocide, slavery, the subjugation of women, religious persecution and the killing of homosexuals. But still, some people think this logic is sound and compatible with today's values.

As Governor of Texas, George Bush signed over 150 death warrants, with that smarmy grin and glib accent, and in doing so executed more prisoners than any other governor in the country at that time. Most of the inmates executed, in that state with  a disgraceful criminal justice system, were black and hispanic. But for Bush's constituency of angry white men, this was just - as a practice of the "eye for an eye" principle. It seems as though the advocates of capital punishment are cynically seeking to manipulate the bigotry of the "rabble" for their own ends. Though, in the spirit of "fair and balanced" reporting, let Clinton be a subject of contempt in this area also. For it was Bill Clinton, as he was Governor of Arkansas, who saw to it that Ricky Ray Rector was executed in 1992. At the time, Rector was "seriously mentally impaired", to say the least as he had survived shooting himself in the head after he had shot a police officer in the back. But the court rejected the claim of grave mental impairment and gave Rector the death penalty. Clinton could have pardoned Rector, but instead he flew over to Arkansas to exploit Rector's execution to appear "tough on crime". On the night of his execution, Rector saved a slice of pecan pie to eat later, not understanding his death would come first. He also told his incompetent lawyer that he would vote for Clinton. Perhaps, the soixante-huitard turned chickenhawk, Christopher Hitchens was right when he referred to Bill Clinton as a "horrible primate".

Now that we've dealt with the "excessive ugliness" of capital punishment, the circumstances under which the death penalty most definitely should not be used, we should move on to more pressing matters. For advocates of the death penalty it is clear that these are not practices they would endorse, but who would? Because for the angry white men who want to see Jon Venables executed, in their eyes Venables is clearly guilty, totally responsible for his actions and mentally competent. Therefore, he is fit to be made an example of, so that future 10year-olds will not commit such a horrific crime. Though, it should be noted that making an example of criminals like Venables will not create a deterrent for future offenders. As can be seen in the US, where thousands of people are killed just by gunshot every year. But it isn't really about making an example of a man, to deter future crimes, it is about satisfying the intense hatred they have of this man. That is why, it is imperative to discuss the principle most often used to justify capital punishment, otherwise we are not tackling the substance of the issue. The principle: an eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth.

... Makes the World Blind.

If we took this principle literally and applied it to chattel slavery, the former slaves would have a right to enslave their former masters. Yes, you can make the case that it was the masters who freed the slaves, which vindicates them of their past crimes. Though, would that be justice according to the "eye for an eye" principle? For the former slaves to let their former masters get away with it. It could be argued that it is not literally a "tooth for a tooth". But the fact that the masters, and virtually all people, would not like to see themselves enslaved is why this would be wrong. As it is the very standards we apply to ourselves that we should extend to others. Because we would not sell ourselves into slavery, we should not enslave others. Thus, the reason why chattel slavery was so immoral in principle. The "eye for an eye" principle is a complete reversal of this, that if one does wrong we should reciprocate and wrong them in the same manner. But really, if we wish to live in a better society we would not accept such a double-standard and would not debase ourselves morally, in stooping to the level of murderers and slave-masters. Instead, there are rational options such as reparations to the victims from the perpetrators.

Though, I realise chattel slavery was abolished in the 19th Century, so perhaps a more recent example would be more befitting the reader. In the 1980s, the US government supported a right-wing terrorist group known as the Contras in their campaign against the left-wing Sandinista government of Nicaragua. The Contras' campaign of terrorism killed over 80,000 people. So, according to the logic of "tooth for a tooth", should Nicaragua launch a campaign of terror by proxy on the American government? But let's suppose this is a "straw-man" being used to debunk the principle and that the American politicians who gave the orders for the crimes should be held personally responsible. Though, holding the Reagan administration responsible is undeniably what should have been done. This would not be accordance with the "eye for an eye" principle. A few receiving life-terms, or the death penalty in this case, for the murder of 80,000 people. It doesn't sit well, especially as the American population failed to prevent the atrocities. The obvious answer to this moral dilemma is that the principle "eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth" is not workable in reality as it is a warped principle.

No one would accept that the immorality of a terror campaign, launched by the United States government, should be "reciprocated" against the US to even the score. Nor should anyone have to accept that, but because they don't accept that, they should oppose actions by the government to launch such campaigns in the first place. The standards we would apply to ourselves have to apply to others. In that context, who you are is irrelevant as the standards are equal regardless. This approach is based on the "Golden Rule" - treat others as you expect to be treated - to this moral issue, which also originates in religious scripture and philosophical texts. It makes no real sense, why we would treat a criminal according to the standards that they treated their victims. As we are acting in condemnation of such "standards", in doing so we endorse the immoral act and undermine our moral authority over the criminal. All because some people want to feel better about crime, by being "tougher" and "tougher" on criminals. Before you know it, we're executing the mentally deficient and the innocent. Gandhi once said "Eye for an eye makes the whole world blind." Let us remember those wise words.

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