Forgiveness: The Antidote

We ordained therein for them: “Life for life, eye for eye, nose or nose, ear for ear, tooth for tooth, and wounds equal for equal.” But if any one remits the retaliation by way of charity, it is an act of atonement for himself. Quran 5:45 (1)

In 2004, Iranian woman Ameneh Bahrami was left blind and severely disfigured by an acid attack carried out at the hands of an estranged suitor. The attacker, Majid Movahedi, was angry that Bahrami had rejected his marriage proposal.

Bahrami sought to prosecute Movahedi under qisas, a little-known stipulation of Islamic law that allows for punishment in kind. In 2008, a court backed her request, and in 2011, after many delays, complications and reversals, the punishment was finally scheduled to be carried out.

Under the supervision of an eye specialist, a judiciary representative, and Bahrami herself, a distraught Movahedi was sedated. The physician prepared to drop 10 drops of acid into each of Movahedi’s eyes. All was set for his court-ordered blinding.

The physician turned to Bahrami, waiting for her nod—and she called off the punishment. “I forgave him, I forgave him,” she cried (2). “I am proud of my daughter,” Ms. Bahrami’s mother said later of the incident. “Ameneh had the strength to forgive Majid. This forgiveness will calm Ameneh and our family.” (3)

It does seem likely that Ameneh’s decision to forgive her attacker could help her heal. But why is this the case? Why did she forgo the raw, retributive power she would have felt at knowing her attacker was also blind, in exchange for a softer, higher, and more peaceful end? Answers might lie in psychology as well as law.

Punishment in kind largely misses the goals of punishment

It seems that a hallmark of a civilized society is the absence of punishment in kind. Why aren’t thieves stolen from? Why aren’t assaulters assaulted? Why aren’t rapists raped? Why aren’t murderers murdered? The reason seems to be that punishment in kind largely misses the goal of punishment in the first place. We must ask ourselves: why do we punish wrongdoers? Is it solely for the sake of retribution?

Legal scholars generally point to four purposes of punishment: deterrence, rehabilitation, incapacitation, and retribution. Punishment in kind certainly achieves one of these. What about the rest?

Rehabilitation seeks to better the criminal—to teach him the error in his crime—so that, once released, he won’t be tempted to commit such a crime again. It seems pretty clear that punishment in kind does not achieve rehabilitation. If anything, it would increase spite and malice in the criminal, only encouraging him to recommit the original or another crime.

What about incapacitation? The idea here is that, while a prisoner is detained, he’s unable to commit that crime again, simply because he’s removed from society. Well, punishment in kind certainly doesn’t achieve this, since it doesn’t require that criminals be removed from society. They’re free to go as soon as the punishment is complete.

One of the principal arguments proposed by advocates for in-kind punishment, including backers of Bahrami’s qisas case, is that punishment in kind achieves deterrence. Bahrami’s case was followed across Iran and worldwide. If would-be acid attackers witnessed Movahedi’s unsightly punishment, they themselves would think twice about their own plans. The deterrence argument is a tempting one. However, studies show that those contemplating crime are influenced more by certainty of punishment than severity of punishment (4). After all, one would hardly resist committing a crime for which he didn’t expect to be punished. Though a strong argument can be made for deterrence, it seems that the method of punishment, no matter how grotesque, matters less than the fact that wrongdoers are punished in the first place.

So, punishment in kind as a means for accomplishing punishment’s four goals falls short. The only goal we can say with confidence that punishment in kind achieves is retribution. Other methods of punishment are more effective at achieving the rest.

On the other hand: punishment in kind is certainly good at what it does—the best, in fact. What’s so bad about punishing for retribution alone? Few would disagree that Bahrami deserved that right. Why shouldn’t all victims be allowed to deal in-kind retribution? Why shouldn’t all criminals have to fear it, if only for justice’s sake?

Retributive punishment is damaging

We forget all too quickly that criminals are on trial for a reprehensible act. Ought we to be ashamed of our desire to re-inflict it? Where does this desire stem from, anyway?

I suppose humans are programmed to regard highly some notion of fairness. But what’s fair to a criminal certainly isn’t right.

Punishment in kind achieves the raw, basic, even animalistic pleasure of knowing that justice has been exacted, fair and true. Once that fades, though, the victim’s own wounds may be no less painful. Withholding that punishment, on the other hand, allows the victim the higher pleasure of knowing that she has chosen not to stoop to the level of the criminal. The victim can then attempt to heal by acknowledging the goodness in others–including her attacker–as opposed to revealing the evil in herself.

Fairness feels good, but, in the long run, goodness feels better. Humans may have an evolutionary drive towards fairness, but we’re also driven towards creating a humane, civilized, and respectful society. The latter impulse shouldn’t be ignored by an individual, and it certainly shouldn’t be ignored by the punitive arm of government.

“Each of us, individually, must try and treat others with respect and kindness in order to have a better society,” Bahrami told reporters after the incident (5).

The benefit of Bahrami’s forgiveness extends beyond just her attacker. Bahrami gave sight to her attacker–and she gave civility to her society. Perhaps her latter gift was the greatest of all.


  1. Holy Quran
  2. Iranian blinded by acid pardons her attacker
  3. Iranian sentenced to blinding for acid attack pardoned
  4. Deterrence in Criminal Justice: Evaluating Certainty vs. Severity of Punishment
  5. Victim: Revenge in Iran acid attack is ‘not worth it’

2 comments on “Forgiveness: The Antidote

  1. Ben says:

    “If would-be acid attackers witnessed Movahedi’s unsightly punishment, they themselves would think twice about their own plans.”

    From today’s New York Times:

    “It is important to forgive because forgiveness is a high human value. But I regret my decision to forgive my attacker. My family and I feel relieved, but I feel guilty about later acid attacks. I think that if I had not pardoned my attacker, maybe there would not be more victims.”

    • Josh says:

      Yeah, it almost looks like Bahrami defected by not punishing her attacker. She retained the benefit of the clean moral conscience, but everyone else lost the benefit of the deterrent effect the punishment could have had. Then, later, she felt guilty about her defection.

      Of course, this analysis is only true to the extent that an “eye-for-an-eye” punishment is in fact deterrent, a notion I argued against in my post.

      For an interesting present-day parallel, the parents of one of the victims of the Boston Marathon bombing have spoken out against the possibility of a death sentence for the culprit, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. So they could potentially be viewed as defectors as well.

      Under my argument, though, both victims are cooperators. Because the benefit of deterrence (of which there may have been none) is not as great as the benefit of retaining a civilized society.

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