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Revenge may be sweet, but is it the best way to resolve disputes? In our enlightened times, we generally say no. Sure, modern justice can be frustratingly abstract, usually offering nothing more than hard time for wrongdoers or cold cash for victims. However, at least no one else gets hurt after the courts do their jobs. But as seen by the popularity of the death penalty in the United States and the resurgence of sharia law in some Islamic nations, forms of justice that extract more literal punishments still hold a strong appeal. In Eye for an Eye, William Ian Miller writes that this shouldn’t surprise us. Talionic justice (talion is the term for a punishment identical to the offense) isn’t just the way that earlier societies often righted wrongs, but a process that will always seem logical to many people, no matter how modern or civilized we become. Miller, a Yale-educated law professor who teaches a popular class in blood feuds at the University of Michigan, has built much of his career around this theme. One of his first books looked at how medieval Icelanders settled scores in the absence of laws or a state. Miller argues in Eye for an Eye that there’s an equality in “honor cultures” that’s distinctly lacking in contemporary societies. The possibility of losing an eye (or a finger, or an arm, or a life) for committing a crime tends to keep people in check, whether they’re rich or poor. Despite his provocative thesis, however, Miller’s far-flung and often meandering text reads like an extended university lecture. It’s full of the kind of entertaining asides and did-you-know factoids that win best-teaching awards, but on the page can come off as trite. Repayment is the constant theme in Miller’s book. He starts by explaining that because animals were the earliest measures of value in ancient societies, sacrificing them was a way of compensating for offenses against the gods. The valuation of animals, in turn, led to the valuation of humans. In the eighth century a.d., King Ine of Wessex created a system of justice based on the wergeld, or man-price, in which people could be exchanged as a means of compensation for especially heinous crimes. In later societies, revenge sat side by side with financial compensation to form a complex system of justice meant to repay the wronged in as fair and as accurate a way as possible. Clearly, Miller aims to provoke when he claims our ancestors had a better idea about how to repay a wrong than we do now. These days, we’re squeamish about even putting a monetary value on a life. As he writes, “The concern is not just the unseemliness, but also what is claimed to be the immorality of the idea that everything has its price.” Though at points Miller seems earnest in his call for a return to blood-thirstier times, he also argues � quite sensibly � that the American system of criminal justice can be overly detached from the wrongs it intends to right. Modern justice often comes up with punishments that are too abstract for the crimes committed, and thus fail to make victims whole or give them satisfaction. At a very basic and instinctive level, we’re aware of this failure. As evidence, Miller cites the case of Charles Buckley, a San Francisco electrician who killed a 4-year-old girl in a drunk driving accident in 1922. Emotionally distraught, Buckley offered to give his own 5-year-old daughter to the victim’s parents. “Dollars, to his mind,” writes Miller, “was not the right money for the occasion.” Buckley’s offer was sincere � and apparently made with his wife’s consent � but was too extreme to be accepted. While contemporary examples of talionic societies seem to abound, Miller writes that they’re anything but. Payback slayings may take place in urban ghettos the world over, but these environments don’t enjoy true talionic justice because they lack a group of authoritative elders to make sure the repayment is always fair. And extreme Islamic societies that promote and celebrate suicide bombers fail the talionic test by devaluing life to the price of zero, making it impossible to devise an accurate judicial price list. Still, Miller points out, we’ve managed to preserve milder, informal forms of talionic justice. On the playground, in school, and, yes, even sometimes in the office, taking a literal or figurative whack at someone who has upset the balance of justice certainly seems to do the trick. Alec Foege, a freelance writer, is working on a book about Clear Channel Communications, to be published by Faber and Faber next year. Eye for an Eye By William Ian Miller (Cambridge University Press, 304 pages)

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