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The Baseness of Acid


We have so far been affected by sentimentality and a lack of realism that only undue severity moves or appalls us, rarely the opposite.


Revenge, said Lord Bacon, who was not himself completely foreign to the impulse, is a kind of wild justice, which the more man's nature runs to, the more ought law to weed it out. Furthermore, he says, it does the revenger harm, psychologically, for he goes on to say: This is certain, that a man that studieth revenge keeps his own wounds green, which otherwise would heal and do well.

It is my observation from many cases that he who seeks revenge, or merely compensation, through our system of tort law, "keeps his wounds green," sometimes for many years or even forever. Not only does it take years to obtain that revenge, in the form of financial redress, but it is seldom of a quantity sufficient to satisfy the revenger, who then feels doubly wounded, first by the wrongdoer and second by the legal system; or if the redress is sufficient, the revenged man has to keep his wounds green in order to justify to himself the large sum that he has procured. He does not want to admit to himself that money is a healer, for that cheapens his suffering and suggests that he was mercenary in the first place.

But the lex talionis – an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth – appeals to man's instinctive feeling for justice. Note that Lord Bacon does not say that revenge is unjust: he says that it is wild, on other words that it has a tendency to get out of hand and become a source of new injustice. Interestingly, he does not say in his little essay on the subject that revenge, in its best aspect, acts as a deterrent to future acts of injustice; he says rather that, where it is least harmful, "the delight seemeth not so much in doing the hurt as in making the party repent."

This, it seems to me, is rather over-optimistic about human nature and its sometime joy in inflicting pain on others; but certainly Bacon's essay is an early example of the shift from shame as the regulator of behaviour to guilt as its regulator.

A very interesting recent case of the operation of the lex talionis comes from Iran. A woman called Ameneh Bahrami had acid thrown in her face by a spurned lover, a man who wanted desperately to marry her, but was several times refused, threatened to kill her and eventually decided to ensure that, if she would not marry him, she would marry no one else. (I often heard these words from a murderer: If I can't have her, no one else will.)

The acid that the spurned lover threw in her face disfigured her terribly and blinded her for life. In the Middle East and South Asia this behaviour is common: there are thousands of cases a year, or so we are told.

The victim insisted upon her legal right under Iranian law to retribution; and the retribution she demanded was that the perpetrator be blinded in the same way. The court eventually agreed, with a significant alteration: the man was to be blinded by acid under anaesthetic. There has been an international outcry of the usual kind; Amnesty International called the punishment a form of torture, and western governments have protested. For once, the Iranians have – at least for the time being – taken notice of the outcry, and postponed the execution of the decreed punishment.

What is wrong with it? It cannot be said to be unjust in itself, disproportionate to the original offence, which was one of the greatest magnitude. Can one honestly say that the perpetrator did not deserve such a punishment (assuming that he was not insane when he committed the act, a subject of great complexity worth going into in itself). His crime was not only premeditated and highly organised, it was one consciously designed to bring about a maximum of suffering – decades of suffering, to the very last day of her life – to the victim. It is difficult to think of the crime without rage, or to imagine the victim without sorrow.

All the same, I could not help but feel that a grave injustice had been done: for unwarranted leniency is also injustice.

She does not deny her thirst for revenge, and which of us is in a position to condemn her for that? But she also says that, in a society in which many women are horribly treated by men who get away with it, this punishment will be both exemplary and deterrent. She does not want others to suffer as she has suffered; and again, no one could blame her for that. Whether the punishment would actually be a deterrent remains to be seen (in any case such questions tend to be undecidable), but it is certainly not implausible.

For all this, however, I think most of us would bridle at the punishment. Our objection to it would be not be that it was unjust, but that it was brutal. Justice is not the only virtue or desideratum in life, and justice must therefore be tempered by mercy.

Here let me say that mercy is not the same as forgiveness. The law can be merciful but not forgiving: often it cannot inflict what a man deserves because what he deserves is too awful to contemplate. Similarly, I may forgive a wrongdoer for what he does to me, but I have no right to forgive him for what he does to you: only you have that right, a right that, incidentally, is not a duty. For me to forgive the person who wrongs you is a form of self-indulgence or, worse still, moral exhibitionism. Hence, no one, and certainly not the law (whose duties are different from those of individuals), has the right to forgive the perpetrator of the crime in Iran except the victim, and she chooses, very understandably and in my view rightly, not to do so.

The punishment is nevertheless brutal because the deliberate infliction of such an injury is brutal irrespective of the motives for inflicting it. Can one imagine oneself being prepared to drop acid into the eyes of a sighted man in order to blind him, however evil one might believe him to be? Would one trust oneself to be doing it for good rather than for bad reasons? Not every punishment is permissible that is just and proportionate.

What of the utilitarian argument, that the end would justify the means? Let us suppose that blinding the perpetrator would deter a hundred similar acid-throwers (assuming such a thing could be known indubitably in advance, which itself is highly doubtful). Would that make the punishment right?

Let us suppose also that the hundred acid-throwers deterred would disfigure but not blind. Is there any way of reducing the suffering caused by the blindness of the punished perpetrator to the same units as the suffering caused by the disfiguring avoided, such that a genuine profit and loss calculation can be made? I doubt it.

Further, let us suppose that the perpetrator to be blinded is not the real perpetrator, but that everyone supposes that he is, such that the deterrent effect of blinding him would be the same as if he were the real perpetrator. Would that be all right?

Surely the answer is No, it would not be all right, though the net effect of the punishment might be beneficial. It would not be all right because it would be grossly unjust. Nor would matters be rectified, morally, if the gross injustice were never to be revealed. Utilitarianism as a general account of morality must therefore be unsatisfactory, even if it is often useful and we all sometimes use it in our moral thinking.

Do circumstances alter cases? Could the blinding of the perpetrator be right in Iran but wrong in the West? After all, acid-throwing in the faces of women seems to be not much of a problem in the West, but it is a problem in the Middle East and South Asia. It does occasionally happen here, but not on a scale to be what one might call a sociological phenomenon. A punishment that appears brutal and even disproportionate in one set of circumstances might therefore not appear brutal or disproportionate in another.

Here I confess to facing both ways, or to not being quite able to resolve the dilemma. Where people behave well in a certain respect, it is not necessary to threaten them with condign punishment in the event that they fail to behave well, at least not from the point of view of deterrence. (Or is it the threat of condign punishment that ensures that they behave well in the first place?) But where they do not behave well, where they behave badly, the threat of condign punishment might produce an improvement.

Amnesty International did not protest, nor did other governments, arguing that the English law was failing to protect people as it should. We have so far been affected by sentimentality and a lack of realism that only undue severity moves or appals us, rarely the opposite (and then only for reasons that require special pleading).

A few years ago, while working in a prison in England, I met a prisoner on remand who was accused of throwing acid in the face of his girlfriend who wanted to leave him. The allegation was that he did so to disfigure her so that no one else could "have" her.

At first he denied the accusation, on the general grounds that "I don't do them kind of things." Later I asked him whether he had ever been in prison before, whereupon he said that he had. It turned out that this had been for throwing ammonia in the face of a girlfriend about to leave him. Perhaps he regarded throwing ammonia in the face of a woman as a completely different kind of thing – as in "them kind of things" – from throwing acid in the face of a woman, a difference that justified his initial denial; but in the end, he confessed that he had done it, though only while drunk.

He received a prison sentence of two years, of which he would serve but one; he would be out, ready to throw more acid or ammonia in the face of a woman, in only twelve months. I felt this to be a completely unjust and indeed outrageously inadequate sentence, although as far as I know he disfigured the women "only" rather than blinded them. However, it takes little effort of the imagination to understand the terror of these women, to say nothing of the misery of their disfigurement; and if, in distinction to the Iranian acid-thrower, he failed to blind them, it was not through any scruple on his part. A man who throws acid in the face of a woman cannot be said to care very much whether or not he blinds her.

Honesty compels me to admit, however, that the extreme leniency with which (as it seemed to me) this man was dealt by the courts did not lead to a local outbreak of acid-throwing in the faces of women. There was plenty of violence against them, but not of the specifically acid-throwing kind.

All the same, I could not help but feel that a grave injustice had been done: for unwarranted leniency is also injustice. If I had been one of the women in whose face he had thrown acid, or even the relative of one of the women, I would not have thought that the state had taken seriously either the crime itself or the suffering caused by it, or indeed its duty to repress such crimes by signalling that they would not be tolerated. Apart from anything else, it did not seem to me that throwing acid was so sui generis a crime that it should be considered different from other forms of violence and therefore treated differently from a penological point of view. Tolerance of acid-throwing was, in effect, tolerance of all kinds of violence.

The leniency of the sentence given to this man called forth no expression of public outrage. Amnesty International did not protest, nor did other governments, arguing that the English law was failing to protect people as it should. We have so far been affected by sentimentality and a lack of realism that only undue severity moves or appals us, rarely the opposite (and then only for reasons that require special pleading).

But a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, of course. With consistency a great soul has nothing to do; and if we are inconsistent, it is proof enough that we are great souls.



Theodore Dalrymple. "The Baseness of Acid." The New English Review (June, 2011).

Reprinted with permission of the author, Theodore Dalrymple.

The Author

Dalrymple5Dalrymple3Theodore Dalrymple is a former psychiatrist and prison doctor. He is a contributing editor of the Manhattan Institute's City Journal and the Dietrich Weismann Fellow at the Manhattan Institute. He lives in France and is the author of  The Terror of Existence: From Ecclesiastes to Theatre of the Absurd, The Proper Procedure and Other Stories, Out Into The Beautiful World, Admirable Evasions: How Psychology Undermines Morality, Spoilt Rotten: The Toxic Cult of Sentimentality, Farewell Fear, The New Vichy Syndrome: Why European Intellectuals Surrender to Barbarism, Not With a Bang But a Whimper: The Politics and Culture of Decline, In Praise of Prejudice: The Necessity of Preconceived Ideas, Our Culture, What's Left of It: The Mandarins and the Masses, Life at the Bottom: The Worldview That Makes the Underclass, and So Little Done.

Copyright © 2011 The New English Review
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