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Is 'An Eye for an Eye' Revenge Legal?

If someone wrongs you, you may feel like seeking retribution. But is "an eye for an eye" revenge legal?

There short answer is no -- there is no "eye for an eye" law in the American criminal code. But why is such a simple concept not used more our legal system?

Here's a look at where the "eye for an eye" idea came from, and why it might not be able to work in modern society:

'An Eye for an Eye': History

The concept of specific punishments for specific social transgressions was developed in early civilizations for the most part as a limiting factor. As it appears in Babylonian Law, Hebrew Law, and the Code of Hammurabi, "an eye for an eye" was meant to keep people from retaliating on their own, for fear that the retribution would be worse than the original crime. The idea was to create a system of punishments so that people did not take the law into their own hands.

The belief that "an eye for an eye" refers to reciprocal or mirror punishment being exactly that of the crime probably comes from Leviticus:

"And a man who inflicts an injury upon his fellow man just as he did, so shall be done to him [namely,] fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth. Just as he inflicted an injury upon a person, so shall it be inflicted upon him." (Lev. 24:19-21)

Although Jesus told followers to turn the other cheek instead, "an eye for an eye" has persisted in the religious sense, especially in countries that use Islamic Sharia law.

'An Eye for an Eye': Today

There are some areas of American law that seem like they employ the "eye for an eye" theory. For example, our torts system is designed to compensate people for financial harm -- to take from the offender the same amount of money as taken from the person offended. And in a sense, all monetary fines are attempts to find the exact value of a harm, and take it from the guilty party.

But probably the area where "an eye for an eye" comes up most in modern American law is the application of the death penalty. Although current polling is split on capital punishment and fewer people support the death penalty than ever, the idea that death is the proper punishment for taking a life remains a powerful one.

Why Can't It Work?

The principal reason "an eye for an eye" can't be applied to all situations is the absurd results it would produce in certain circumstances. A car thief may not have a car of his own to steal, and an arsonist may not own anything to burn down. Would police kidnap a convicted kidnapper, or peep on a Peeping Tom?

And applying "an eye for an eye" to more heinous crimes like rape, assault, and attempted murder begs the question of who would carry out such retributions.

"An eye for an eye" was conceived as a way to standardize punishment, and in that way, our criminal system (with systematic discipline by way of specified fines and mandatory minimum sentencing) does just that, removing the randomness or ridiculousness of retaliation.

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