By Ashleigh Brilliant   |   October 31, 2019

We’ve all heard the expression “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” – and, if pressed for an origin, we’d probably say “it’s something out of the Bible.” But, as far as I can determine, those exact words don’t occur in any accepted version of the Bible. What we do find, in the 21st Chapter of the Book of Exodus, is a long complicated list of laws, from which may be extracted the following: “If people are fighting, and . . . there is serious injury, you are to take life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth. . .”

But the whole lengthy spelling out in just this one chapter of all the different relationships, (servants, slaves, spouses, etc.) misdeeds (intentional and accidental) injuries (major and minor) and penalties (mild and severe), is mind-boggling. And whether it all meant literally that you should lose an eye because you caused somebody else to lose one is not at all clear (not to me anyway, particularly because this Hebraic code is apparently considered by many scholars to be more humane than others of its time).

The question of how to treat those who misbehave is, of course, still a prominent issue in today’s society. I have my own ideas, but they come up strongly against believers in freedom. I don’t believe in second chances. In fact, I don’t believe in FIRST chances. We have enough scientific knowledge now, or we may soon have, to separate at an early age (or maybe even before birth) at least some of those most likely to be a danger to society – and to perform the necessary brain surgery, or administer the appropriate drugs, to render them, if not altogether harmless, at least less of a threat. (Or even – dare I say it? – not let them be born at all.)

In the meantime, we have all the wonders of modern Penology, with its laws and courts, its vast systems of prisons and paroles, its widely abandoned or diminished rehabilitation programs, and, of course, its rising rates of crime and recidivism, to say nothing of its ever-increasing numbers of victims. Isn’t there anything we can learn from all the generations that have preceded us?

One thing they had that we’ve given up on was inflicting physical pain, AKA Corporal Punishment. Strangely, it now prevails only in the home, in the form of “spanking.”

Some of our ancestors seem to have felt they’d got it right, at least for a time. In the Nineteenth Century in several parts of Western Europe and America, vast new prison complexes were built, on the then-popular theory that isolation and solitude were the best treatment for criminal minds. So, each prisoner was, as much as possible, kept locked away in his own cell, with no contact with other prisoners, or even with the guard who brought his food.

The buildings were designed, with all wings radiating from a central control-tower, engendering a maximum of efficient control, and a minimum of inner communication. The idea was that you went to prison to silently repent of your bad behavior – which is why these institutions were called “Penitentiaries.”

Whether that whole bold experiment was at all successful in changing human lives in any positive way may be judged from the fact that rules were gradually relaxed, and the very word penitentiary has been generally dropped. At about the same time, the most popular method for getting rid of supposed incorrigibles was, to export them – the Russians to Siberia, the French to Devil’s Island, the British, first to America, then to Australia.

But no society seems yet to have been able entirely to do away with its penal system. And of course, punishment, like so much else, begins in the home. Indeed, I first heard that word used by my own father, a mild man, who favored such punishments as deprivation of privileges, or withholding of my “allowance.” This sometimes turned life into a game of calculation, as to whether the crime was worth the punishment.

There is still the question of whether it does any good to try to frighten people into behaving properly by knowing what will happen to them otherwise. This is known as the principle of “deterrence,” and it is of course a central feature of debates on what we call “Capital Punishment.” So, we’re back to the Exodus doctrine of “a life for a life.” But at least the eyes and the teeth have become less negotiable.


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