THE JURY in Denver votes a death sentence for Timothy McVeigh, and the Page 1 headline in the Tampa Tribune declares: "An eye for an eye."
The Los Angeles Times editorializes in support of the verdict, triggering an angry reader's protest: "I'm shocked at your editorial. You show yourself to be of the same 'eye for an eye' mindset as McVeigh himself."
Reverend Jesse Jackson says on CBS's "Face the Nation" that McVeigh's crime "makes the toughest case" for opposing the death penalty. But applying the concept of "an eye for an eye," he warns, ultimately "leaves us blind and disfigured."
In Canada, commentator Frank Jones regards the verdict as tragic. "Just for a moment," he laments in the Toronto Star, "it seemed people might be ready to turn away from short-sighted eye-for-an-eye vengeance."
Nothing generates "eye for an eye" references like a death sentence, and the McVeigh verdict has brought them forth in profusion. Sometimes the biblical phrase is used approvingly, as when Donna Hawthorne, the widow of a man murdered in the Oklahoma City bombing, told the Rocky Mountain News: "I thought justice was done today — an eye for an eye."
But usually the words are cited pejoratively, as a synecdoche for a supposed "Old Testament" ethic of strict and vengeful justice. To death penalty opponents in particular, "an eye for an eye" is a formula for barbarism; the very phrase suggests a legal system based on mindless and bloody retribution.
Nothing could be more inaccurate.
To begin with, they are quoting the wrong phrase. The source of "an eye for an eye" is Exodus 21, the chapter that follows the Ten Commandments. The context is the case of two men in a violent fight, each trying to kill each other. When one man strikes at the second, he misses — and the blow instead wounds a pregnant woman nearby. What is to be done?
That, says Exodus in verses 23-25, depends on how badly she was hurt:
"23. If there shall be a fatality, then you shall award a life for a life.
"24. An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a hand for a hand, a foot for a foot;
"25. A burn for a burn, a wound for a wound, a bruise for a bruise."
Thus, when the Bible prescribes death for the killer, the term it uses is not "an eye for an eye" but "a life for a life." That is the term that belongs in death penalty discussions and commentary on the McVeigh verdict. "An eye for an eye" is not about capital punishment — it is a stipulation of a lesser punishment for a lesser crime.
A lesser punishment for a lesser crime: What a profound and civilizing principle. To the world in which the Bible first appeared, such a notion — that justice should be proportionate — must have seemed revolutionary. Ancient lawmakers, less concerned with fairness than order, often decreed death for minor offenders, or even innocents. Under the Code of Hammurabi, if Amon built a storehouse for Marduk, and Marduk's daughter died when the building collapsed, Amon's daughter was to be killed in retaliation. How astonishing this new law must have been to the judges of Babylon and Egypt. A legal system under which only the guilty could be punished, and then only in proportion to their crimes? Outlandish!
"An eye for an eye." Not two eyes for an eye, not an eye and a leg for an eye, not your life for an eye. And not just a slap on the wrist either. Exodus teaches a fundamental lesson about justice and decency: Criminal law must not permit vast disparities between the magnitude of the offense and the magnitude of the punishment. It is barbaric to hang pickpockets — as British law was doing not so long ago. It is equally barbaric to turn murderers loose after six or seven years in prison — as American law does today. (According to the US Department of Justice, the average prison sentence served for homicide is five years and 11 months.)
To be sure, "an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth" was never taken literally. Jewish law from oldest times interpreted Exodus 21:24-25 as requiring a criminal to pay his victim the monetary equivalent of the blinded eye or broken tooth. (One concern expressed by the rabbis was that putting out a convict's eye could have unintended, perhaps fatal, side effects — thereby increasing his sentence unjustly. But the principle remained: Punishment must be commensurate with the crime, neither cruelly excessive nor unduly lenient.
For willfully committing murder, of course, no financial payment could suffice. The one punishment in these verses that was construed literally was "a life for a life." Murder cannot be expiated with money; it is a crime so hideous that only the life of the killer can atone for it. Human blood, Exodus proclaims, is not cheap: This, too, is a notion that ancient rulers — and some not-so-ancient ones — must have found radical and subversive.
It is ironic that the biblical phrase most often cited to denote spiteful vindictiveness stands in fact for exactly the opposite. Fairness, restraint, avoidance of needless cruelty, an insistence on punishing only the guilty — these are the ideas with which "an eye for an eye" enlightened and uplifted human law. Absent that injunction, we would be far less civilized.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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