An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.” - Mahatma Gandhi
This quote by Gandhi is a reference to the famous passage from Leviticus in the Bible (from the part known as the “Old Testament” by Christians – an often strange and fanciful document). Gandhi’s point being that simplistic retribution is not the solution to the world’s ills. The consequences of the “eye for an eye” philosophy result in an endless cycle of violence.
One of the most controversial subjects in civilized societies, where each life is considered precious, is the question of a death penalty. Defenders of this practice believe that certain crimes warrant the taking of the offender’s life. On an emotional level it’s hard not to want to punish criminals who commit heinous acts. At a ‘gut level’ it seems a natural feeling. The problem is (still) defining just which type of crime should result in the death of the perpetrator? For example, what type of murder - only premeditated? Or, what about treason – any treason or only where lives are/were clearly endangered? These are tough questions…and there are many more cases of various crimes that some believe should be subject to capital punishment. Hell, let’s remember that in the past people have been hung for stealing a loaf of bread! I for one believe that no crime deserves the death penalty.
Many argue that the main reason for ending the death penalty is that sometimes convictions are erroneous and as a result innocent people have been executed. Others point out that in countries where the death penalty has been abolished there has been a decline in murder rates. It’s true! For people who want to abolish the practice of capital punishment the best argument is its lack of efficacy. It doesn’t discourage murder. In other words, it is not a deterrent to people who will kill someone…state sanctioned violence may actually encourage violence! This is Gandhi’s central point.
My reason for abolishing the death penalty is that we should view life as truly ‘precious’. Therefore, the state must act as if it is precious, and under no circumstances should it take a life. This far more positive message is the starting point of any civilized society. Of course violent, psychopaths still need to be placed in secure prisons so they can harm no more. But killing even the most depraved person sends the wrong message. The state is saying life is expendable.
This non-violent attitude, the opposite reaction to a violent action, can be effective in dealing with all sorts of behaviours, including verbal abuse. Another famous sage said it much better than I: “You have heard that it was said, an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth. But I say to you, do not resist an evildoer. If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other”. Never stoop to the behavior of a violent person. And by not reacting to someone’s cruel actions you’ll often disarm them. By giving no reaction to their actions you will take away their power.
Of course, I’m not naïve enough to believe a determined murderer (i.e. an enemy soldier in war), violent maniac or bully will walk away if you simply ignore or accept their abuse. At times one must resist…but in many cases the two wise men cited in this essay have pretty much got it right.
As for the death penalty, it should be thrown into the dustbin of history.