An Eye for an Eye: Reciprocal Justice or Perpetual Injustice?

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As long as people continue to seek retribution and revenge they will perpetrate injustice. But it is widely recognized that peace will come only when participants in conflict respect each other’s needs and aspirations. This is an on-going source of tension in the Middle East, and it applies equally to all human relationships and conflict.

Tensions have been growing in the Middle East of late and for a lot of reasons. For well over a year now the phenomenon known as the “Arab Spring” has been spreading and deepening its roots. There is an ever-growing discontent over the rampant corruption and lack of popular representation in the governments of several Arab states. In response to increased protests, some despots have attempted to tighten the reins on power, even by unleashing terror against their own people. A few months ago, Mahmoud Abbas came to the UN to seek recognition for a Palestinian state in the absence of a peace treaty with Israel. In response, Israel stepped up settlement in disputed territories. Then there’s the matter of Iran’s nuclear program, which is touted by officials as being “for peaceful purposes” only, but which is suspected by others to be at least in part a covert program to develop a nuclear weapons capability. Having failed to reach an agreement to halt production of weapons-grade nuclear fuel, there ensued a cyber-attack on computers that control centrifuges as well as a string of mysterious killings of some of Iran’s nuclear scientists. Iran saw the fingerprints of Israel or its agents on these events and within weeks some equally suspicious killings of Israeli diplomats and other figures occurred, in what many suspect is a tit-for-tat retaliation by Iran or its agents. There’s a definite pattern in these events, and predictably, it’s only helping to raise tensions in an already troubled part of the world.

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The question of how best to secure justice and respond to injury is as old as time. And despite the more esoteric, intellectual thinking to the contrary that might occur in college classrooms or in dinner table discussions, the stark reality is that the old “eye-for-an-eye, tooth-for-a-tooth” axiom still dominates the mentalities of most aggrieved parties and their national representatives. This prescription for addressing injustice has been with us even since the days of Hammurabi’s Code and the early Torah. But its primary intention seems to have been to prevent an injured party from exacting outrageous, excessive retribution from the alleged perpetrator (as well as the offender’s family) of an offense, while also attempting to ensure that victims were not deprived of fair and adequate compensation for losses they might have suffered. So the principle is really about a measured approach to seeking and meting out justice. But the more common mentality arising from this perspective has too often been a “you have smitten me so now I shall smite you” approach to settling scores. And history tells us that this approach does little to balance competing interests while doing a lot to perpetuate or even escalate conflict.

Gandhi is reported to have said that “an eye for an eye for an eye for an eye leads to everyone being blind.” There is wisdom on multiple levels to this statement. After lengthy stints of mutual retaliation, many opposing factions not only lose sight of what they’ve really been fighting for, but also lose their ability to find more constructive alternatives. It’s sad, unfortunate, inordinately self-defeating, but nonetheless all too common. Even now, there are those in Israel arguing over how best to retaliate for assassinations believed carried out by Iran, who acted in response to assassinations they believe were instigated and paid for by the Israelis. And so it goes, on and on — the very definition of insanity (misattributed to Albert Einstein, among others): doing the same thing over and over again, yet expecting different results.

As is the case in most conflicts, each side has legitimate needs and aspirations. However if the participants can avoid severely thwarting or ignoring each other’s needs and aspirations, the “fuel” necessary to exacerbate a conflict is greatly diminished. That’s why true seekers of peace and justice strive to discover, respect, and attend to the legitimate concerns of all parties. Over the many years of the so-called “peace process,” which has involved the participation of several nations, most of these legitimate concerns have been well established. Still, not much has changed, and tensions have only grown. That’s because it takes one heck of a leap of faith in the basic worth and decency of every person and in the premise that the surest way to secure peace is by attending to their honest needs instead of threatening them with dire consequence if they don’t respect yours.

Just this morning I was doing some research on the internet and found more than two dozen major organizations and foundations dedicated to peace and justice in the Middle East (the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace being just one of them). Former presidents, career diplomats, and even billionaire philanthropists have all mounted efforts. And it was truly mind-boggling to see how much congruence there is between each organization with respect to the basic principles and goals they advance. Just about everyone seems to agree on what it would take for things in the region to be better and peace and justice to finally reign. So why aren’t those things happening? Perhaps the answer to that lies in the vested interests that would likely lose influence and power if true justice ever prevailed. The power-seekers among us aren’t of a mind to give it up easily once they’ve managed to secure it. And because the eye-for-an-eye mentality is so pervasive among them, one might be tempted to give up hope. But the cause of peace has a big if not yet fully appreciated ally in the information age. No longer can power-hungry despots and self-serving interests keep their true agendas and nefarious ways of advancing those agendas secret for long (as evidenced by the killings of innocent women and children that were denied by officials but were captured on cell phone cameras and distributed over the internet). Even the most carefully crafted propaganda campaigns eventually become exposed these days.

The power mongers among us will eventually have to reckon with the fact that knowledge is power, too. And it’s perhaps just the power we all need to reckon much more effectively with the dominance-seekers among us. Let’s hope that information technology exposes enough of the truth regarding the injustices that have prevailed for too long in the Middle East and the Promised Land. And let us also pray that those who have fueled the endless cycle of retribution in that troubled region will be forced to see the self-defeating error of their eye-for-an-eye ways and enticed to beat their swords into plowshares.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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