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?

(Aaron C. Engelberg Photography / Getty Images)

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I’m not arguing that people should engage in self-help. I call for the legal system to do it right and to take certain precautions to recognize what happens when the system does it wrong. The transaction costs are tricky when individuals go about it. You could always get the wrong person.

If the legal system fails, which it often does, and individuals can’t live with the outcome, and they have to take justice into their own hands, we should at least recognize what it was, instead of treating it like a separate crime. In the book, I mentioned a case in Rhode Island, the father whose 5-year-old son was killed and eaten by a pedophile, Michael Woodmansee. Woodmansee got a 40-year plea bargain, and he got out in 28 years. The media spoke to the father and he said, “If this man is released in my vicinity, I do intend to kill him.” Many people reacted with outrage. But how can we not sympathize?

If a father killed his child’s murderer, how should the legal system treat him?

We need a revenge statue that would say, “This crime took place wholly in the context of a justified retaliation,” in the same way that we permit self-defense. This isn’t premeditated murder; it’s something like manslaughter. I would always give the legal system the first chance, but if something like this were to happen, we should understand it in the context of a justified revenge. 

You write about the place of revenge in “the moral universe.” From where do you derive your understanding of morality?

It’s not religious. There are some things that are just right and wrong. It’s better to tell the truth than to lie. It’s better to treat people with kindness than to harm them. I don’t accept a moral relativism there. Similarly, there is a kind of moral absolutism when people who are guilty of something are sufficiently punished. There’s a chapter on science in the book, and all the recent research is without any question: we are wired for justice and fairness and retaliation. We respond to justified retaliation with a sense of relief, of satisfaction. Certain sectors of the brain light up when a person receives his due.

You’re obviously very passionate about this. Have you ever been the victim of a crime?

No. Aside from the fact that my parents were Holocaust survivors, I’ve lived a very charmed life.

You don’t think your parents’ experience has anything to do with your feelings of moral outrage when people get away with murder?

No. They died when I was very young. This isn’t personal to me, this just makes sense. The human experience means something to me. I don’t like the antiseptic way in which we think the law is supposed to deal with individuals. People come to the law when they’re at their most vulnerable, their most emotional, their most morally injured. We have to respond to them at that level. Vengeance has a purpose. It has an emotional purpose, a moral purpose, a therapeutic purpose. Why can’t we just be honest about it?

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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