Friday, October 26, 2007

Is “Eye for an Eye” Justice?

My students are currently finishing up Bryce Courtenay’s The Power of One, the story of an English boy growing up in apartheid South Africa. Told almost as a contemporary myth, the novel deals not only with the tensions between whites and blacks, but also between the English and the Afrikaans. It is the story of finding one’s inner strength to stand up for what is right (well, at least until you get to the end). We’ve had lengthy class discussions about the effects of racism, where prejudice comes from and how it takes hold, we’ve talked about apathy and inner strength. But a few days ago, we got stuck on the question of justice.

We’ve been picking apart themes of the novel – how can camouflage be a necessity and a hindrance in the development of one’s identity? What does it mean to have power? What is the difference between power over one’s self and power over a group? How do people maintain power? The class has come up with a number of important truths stemming from our discussions: evil exists when good men do nothing; real strength comes in being able to analyze, understand, and empathize with another person before taking action; to beat the system, you must first understand it; and, because man fears a loss of power, he will attempt to maintain it by fear and force. Unfortunately, when we came to the portion of the story where one of the characters is brutally killed standing up for what he believes and later his attacker is murdered in much the same way, my students were divided.

Some cheered this turn of events in the novel. In the end, the attacker, Lt. Borman, got what he deserved. This is karmic retribution, some students declared. At which point I asked, “is ‘eye for an eye’ really justice?” I was surprised by how many students argued that, indeed, it was. I tried to reason with them – “If Mary calls me a jerk, and I call Mary a jerk right back, aren’t I stooping to her level? That’s not justice.” They wouldn’t be moved. “You’ve got to stand up for yourself, Ms. Ward. Isn’t that what this novel is about?”

Since when did revenge become justice? The students argued that if the attacker lived, it would not have been just. However, I argued that his death came in the form of revenge for another wrong, which contradicts many of the truths we discussed earlier. Still, many of the students were not convinced, which will be problematic when they get to the end of the story where it is not another character that is exacting the revenge but the protagonist. Although, the story completes the hero’s cycle by returning to the beginning, the ending complicates, if not contradicts, many of the themes of the novel. The ending seems to validate my students’ argument that an eye for an eye is justice.

Do we really live in a society where “eye for an eye” is justice? Have I run into a development wall with the students or have the values of our society shifted?


About the graphic: Dries Buytaert is a graduate student who takes beautiful photographs. You'll find more of his work by clicking on the graphic above or by visiting buytaert.net.
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