Monday, January 2, 2012

devolution of punishment


Hal Pepinsky,,

January 2, 2012


The above story, including interviews with the victim, heralded in the new year, reverberating among international news outlets. A popular, reportedly oft-courted university student had acid thrown in her face by a rejected suitor/classmate/stalker, blinded and disfigured. She sued and won the legal right, by a deadline, to have him blinded by a family member pouring acid in the perp’s eyes as long as she wanted unless or until she said no. She wanted the court-ordered punishment imposed until seconds before the clock struck when if he were still alive, he would be freed for all time. As I heard her describe it, in the last moments before the deadline, she was seated at the bedside of her assailant. He was strapped down, his head immobilized. On the other side were, as I recall, her grandfather, parents, and oldest brother. Beside them were a doctor who held two small syringes of super acid and a prosecutor, presiding. Only the brother accepted the syringes. The prosecutor told the victim that she could stop the proceeding any time by just saying no. The assailant was writhing and screaming obscenities at the victim about how fat and ugly she was. At the last moment, the survivor shouted no! stop! The incredulous prosecutor asked whether she did indeed forgive her assailant, which she did. The prosecutor asked her why she had put everyone in the room to so much trouble. The victim-turned-survivor replied that even though she had hoped her revenge would deter others from doing to other women what had been done to her, but in the end, she could not bring herself to put another human being through the pain that she had endured. Released, her attacker sobbed and bowed and started to kiss her feet. My recollection is that she told him to get up and be on his way, while she gets on with the life she has built since the attack. What an uplifting story of peace and justice with which to start the new year.

The survivor’s name is Ameneh Bahrami. I for one am profoundly grateful that she has taken charge of her own life and shares her story. Ms. Bahrami, many thanks. How fitting it is that you sought and received your judgment in the land of Hammurabi’s law of lex talionis, where you sought and received the state-protected right to take his eyes for yours, confronted your attacker, and let the torture you suffered end between you and the guy who hurt you end by your own example.

Your story reminds me that lex talionis is a time-honored way of ending wars and feuds. I remember noticing an ethnography of early Icelandic justice that gave a family member of a murder victim a day or two or three to go with backup to the killer’s place and kill him in front of his family, or be done with it. I also hear echoes of Shakespeare’s Portia in Merchant of Venice telling the lendor he could take his pound of flesh from his debtor…but not a drop more on pain of death for murder. I understand lex talionis to be a statute of limitations on punishment: take whatever pain or compensation and let the matter end there.

The attacker has also been publicly named. His remaining life will surely remain hell if that matters to anyone, which it no longer does to Ms. Bahrami. But that is no longer anyone’s public responsibility to perpetuate.

By giving Ms. Bahrami total control of her assailant within carefully prescribed limits, the Iranian prevented the dispute from escalating between families, let alone ending further state management of lives of those involved. Although the victim-offender conflicts I mediated back in Indiana were far less severe than Ms. Bahrami’s, I resonate to her experience of joys of victim-offender mediation.

To me, the moral of this story is that the more readily we can arrange for people with grievances to settle the grievances among themselves, the less we get saddled with state attempts to dictate terms of settlement because those who have been offended tend to settle. Where the original justification for crown justice was imposing public safety from on high, I now find myself celebrating Iranian law enforcement officials grant to Ms. Bahrami of limited control over her own wrongdoer’s fate instead--a devolution of power that turned out to become restorative rather than retributive for all concerned. When the state defers punishment for social order’s sake to victims as Iranian authorities have done for Ms. Bahrami, results can be far more liberating to all concerned than any state-imposed punishment for Ms. Bahrami could have achieved. From wars abroad to wars on crime at home, the time for devolution of state-imposed punishment is at hand. Love and peace--hal

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