More Barbarity

While the punishment appears for the moment to have been postponed, there is another horrible, barbarous story out of Iran. This time it’s not the stoning of a woman but the deliberate blinding of a man. He is alleged to have blinded a woman by throwing acid in her face when she spurned his advances. A Iranian court has now decided to order that he be blinded in return.

While there was a (justified) international outcry over the threat that a woman would be stoned, there has been none—at least that I’m aware of—over this latest barbarity. The man should, of course, be severely punished (if he is found guilty of doing what he is alleged to have done, just as the woman should be punished if she did commit murder), but the idea that the proposed punishment (in either case) “fits the crime” is horrible.

If I try to work out what is horrible about it, I think that it’s the continued acceptance of the old idea of “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth”. You don’t lift a culture of violence out of that propensity by giving the state the power, not simply to punish its citizens, but to maim, disfigure or kill them; you simply give in to people’s worst instincts. I suppose that I have the same visceral response to this punishment as I have to the death penalty: no matter how heinous the crime, we simply provide by our own savagery an example that can only do more harm. The fact that, from a legal point of view, a maiming or a killing once done can’t be undone, makes the whole process even more appalling. The culture where such punishments are possible—a fortiori if they are common—demeans its values, or at least the values that I believe it should aspire to. It’s time that every culture (and country) shook off the ideas that might have seemed natural 1,000 or even 200 years ago.


  1. “The old law of an eye for an eye leaves everybody blind. It is immoral because it seeks to humiliate the opponent rather than win his understanding. It seeks to annihilate rather than to convert.”
    Martin Luther King Jr.

  2. I agree entirely about your reservations on capital punishment, and they underlie my opposition to its practice as well. But I do take exception with the terminology of “barbarity,” a term originally devised by the Greeks to denigrate other civilizations (usually Persians), and used thereafter by Europeans to look down upon all other global cultures.

    The presentation of these practices as cultural norms is also aberrant. There is probably more capital punishment in Iran today than there has been in its entire history, and the Shi’a tradition has considerable jurisprudence that allows it to subrogate hudood and qisas laws. The question then becomes why we find ourselves in the situation that we are today, and the answer to that lies in the past.

    Like most nations in the region, Iran has been a victim of European colonialism. The discovery of oil in Iran led to the Anglo-Persian Oil Company, which in turn hastened the Anglo-Russian Convention of 1907 to dismiss Iranian sovereignty for the pursuit of their natural resources. After a number of successive occupations, an actual invasion occurred under Operation Countenance. In the 21st century, we’ve seen two illegal invasions of Iran’s immediate neighbours, and audible cries for invasion of Iran itself. We’ve seen brutal torture of innocent civilians under our watch in both of these theatres that pale in front of cases of capital punishment in Iran.

    The culture of violence is ours, not theirs, and it makes no difference that we outsource our violence to other parts of the world instead of partaking in it at home. They are only reacting to the policies that “seemed natural” to us. I’ll let you decide what that says of our “barbarity” or the culture we aspire to.

    The way to transform the cultures of developing nations is to allow them to reground themselves in their pre-colonial histories (200 or 1,000 years ago), and treat them as equal partners on the world stage. Political stability invariably fosters more progressive and tolerant judicial policies. The era of changing the “savage barbarian” by beating them over the head is hopefully over.