Where ‘An Eye for An Eye’ Should be the Letter of the Law | Innovation | Smithsonian
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Where ‘An Eye for An Eye’ Should be the Letter of the Law

The courts have failed victims of violent crimes, according to one Fordham law professor, but does that mean that vengeance is justified?

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Most of us are taught from a young age that revenge is wrong, and it’s better to turn the other cheek. But far from condemning vengeance as something we must learn to overcome, Fordham University law professor Thane Rosenbaum argues in his radical new book, Payback: The Case for Revenge, that the desire to get even is an indelible part of our nature, and that it’s nothing to be ashamed of. In fact, he says, we’d all be better off if society makes a place for revenge in our legal system, accepting it as an integral part of justice. Using examples from history, mythology, popular culture and recent events—such as the widely-celebrated killing of Osama bin Laden—Rosenbaum asks us to “give revenge a chance.”

Doesn’t an eye for an eye leave the whole world blind? Won’t we have a more peaceful society if we abstain from seeking vengeance?

To me, there’s a greater moral outrage in not taking an eye for an eye, or in taking less than an eye for an eye. It’s the moral outrage that comes when people feel they can get away with something. We’ve been taught that vengeance is an artifact of our primitive past. But there is no justice unless people feel avenged. Criminals and wrongdoers should be made to pay back what is owed.

If revenge is natural and right, how did we get to the point where society considers it barbaric and primitive?

There’s a fear of revenge run amok, like when we hear of the Hatfields and the McCoys, where there’s been so much tit for tat and doubling down on tit for tat that nobody knows how to stop it. But I think a blood feud is different from vengeance, because vengeance by definition is proportionate. 

Your book focuses mainly on changing our legal system, and you write that courts need to provide “permissible, legal pathways” for vengeance. What would that look like in practice?

In the United States, our legal system says, “Don’t take anything personally. You are merely a witness on behalf of the state.” It doesn’t allow victims to speak honestly about the harms committed against them. And it doesn’t let them have the necessary biological, psychological and moral imperative of an emotional release. Victims should be part of the suit, rather than calling it People vs. Jones. Victims should be participating in the prosecution, they should be able to speak—and not just at the sentencing hearing, they should speak during the part of the trial that deals with guilt itself.

I also raise the possibility of a victim veto, where if the state enters into a plea bargain that is insufficient in the mind of the victim or the victim’s family, they can say, “Judge, I can’t live with that. This person killed my daughter. I can’t possibly go home and think this is appropriate,” and prevent the bargain from taking place.

Why isn’t it enough to give victims or their families a chance to speak before a convicted criminal is sentenced, as we sometimes do today? Doesn’t including them in the part of the trial meant to determine guilt risk prejudicing the jury against a defendant who is presumed innocent?

The burden is still on the state and the victim to get the right person. And we already do engage victims as witnesses in the guilt phase. It’s not as if they aren’t a part of the process, it’s just that we don’t let them speak to the jury, and they become voiceless. But I want the victim involved. Be a face we can see!

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About Amy Crawford
Amy Crawford

Amy Crawford is a Boston-based freelance journalist writing about government, education and ideas. Her writing has appeared in Smithsonian, Slate, Boston Magazine and the Boston Globe.

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