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lex talionis: the central feature of Deterrence theory

January 26, 2012

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The concept of lex talionis is the central feature of Deterrence Theory.  This concept – that of an eye for an eye is deeply rooted in Judeo-Christian history and culture. In addition to its seeming common-sense-ed-ness, its simplicity and therefore its innate logical appeal, oddly enough its inclusion in the OT (Old Testament) would seem to be the key rationale for its ubiquity and the source of its moral authority in westernized societies.  I say oddly because the principle of an eye for an eye implies retribution and punishment; concepts which would seem at odds with the central tenets and teachings of Christianity, by far largest and most influential religion in the United States, if not (in its many variants) the world.  And while for the most part the NT (New Testament) and many of its proponents profess and advocate ideals such as compassion, charity, unanimity, mercy and unconditional love; one does not usually have to scratch too far beneath the surface to find a more -“pragmatic” shall we say version of their beliefs which are much more akin to: “lock them up and throw away the key” -i.e. Deterrence – than to “forgive and forget” apropos the widely known biblical admonition to – turn the other cheek as follows: (“but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloke also.” (Matthew 5:39, 40) – In fact the Bible says to turn your cheek 7 times 70 times which comes to 490, in other words as many times as it takes. Other gospels and translations may differ in phrase or wording but the inference is the same – i.e. to forgive rather than retaliate. And while this concept is also found more obscurely in the OT – (there it is directed exclusively to the members of “your people” i.e. the Tribes of Israel as opposed to the NT where it is meant to embrace all people in general). It is in fact its moral antonym – “lex talionis” that rules the day in this country as well as most of the rest of the world.  Strangely, many of the strongest proponents of Deterrence theory in the United States emanate from the Bible belt and various other “conservative” leaning areas.  Giving voice to some of the harshest and most pejorative denunciations of “criminals” and “other deviants” such as immigrants or persons from other religions or groups including other denominations of their own faith; they seem to have little grace for any other person or persons whose ideas of right and wrong or good and bad differ from their own. This proclivity for confirmatory bias, i.e. the tendency of favoring the ideas and persons that confirm one’s own beliefs while at the same time fearing and rejecting those of any person(s) whose ideas may differ, challenge or disagree with them is almost certainly a great source of fear; and fear is one of the main drivers of Deterrence theory and its legislative policies and implementation. Its promises of protection rest in the belief that crime will decrease if legal penalties are: certain, severe and swift. Interestingly these are a few of the same characteristics that one might use to define a fundamentalist. And it shows in the legal statutes, jails, and prisons of those states strongly enforcing Deterrence theory principles. It is here one finds some of the highest rates of incarceration and racial profiling as well as some of the longest minimum sentencing practices (pardon the odd phrasing), in addition this is where you’ll find the majority of states in the country still using the Death-Penalty. And so it is that the states with the most draconian laws and legal sanctions to be found anywhere in the nation are also home to the some of the most vocal and strident fundamentalist believers in the teachings of the Christianity; an irony that might be laughable but for the fact that it is so destructive.  It is important to mention that many fundamentalist persons, groups, societies, and countries follow similar patterns e.g. include – Iran, Pakistan, Malaysia, (China and Russia -secular ideologues vs. religious) along with many others…  But the topic in question here regards the predominance of Deterrence theory despite the lack of strong evidence that it works in this country and in this country deterrence and fundamentalism stem mainly from its chief religion which is Christianity. So while the methods, applications, processes and institutions may differ from country to country, region to region, group to group or person to person, its methodologies and desired outcomes are the same (fascism by any other name is still fascism) : The repression by certain members of the dominant culture for non-normative opinions and behaviors that relative to the context of the person, persons, group, culture, society or country making the judgment(s) is deemed malevolent thru use of deterrent messages and measures carried out in a manner proscribed by those dominant entity(s), i.e. might makes right. Thus one may argue there seems to be a correlation between fundamentalist ideologies and a penchant for strict moral and legal codes, i.e. the more fundamental the beliefs are – the harsher the collective rules and sanctions.

It is this ancient and seemingly hard-wired impulse to “get even with” and punish perceived wrong doers along with an over reaching and generalized fear of the unknown or the different that makes Deterrence theory so attractive to so many and why it predominates CJS (Criminal Justice System) policy in the United States today. Deterrence theory offers the appearance of decency, action, control, and moral superiority under the cover of delivering order, justice and retribution. It purports to reduce crime by increasing the numbers of those belonging to minority groups which it labels as criminals and then incarcerates’.  Imagine a SWAT team that with regularity stormed a high school in full gear, weapons drawn, making numerous detentions and arrests … But… in a predominately white affluent suburb under the pretence of finding illegal drugs.  You cannot can you because it would almost certainly never happen and if it did, it would only happen once due to the outcry from the voting community despite strong statistical evidence that minorities are no more likely to sell or use illegal drugs than whites are.  Surprised..?  (Thank the media)  – Yet it’s true (Posey, 2011) and this kind of thing happens daily in many disenfranchised less affluent minority areas.  For many of those living in these areas its standard operating procedure.  Deterrence theory is attractive to members of the dominant culture because it seems easy, simple and direct. It clearly labels the bad people and facilitates their control, even as it allows its adherents to claim the high ground despite violating at least in spirit, various of their “professed” core beliefs.  Its Law and Order message is one of stability and safety for the masses… translation – the members of the dominant culture… so nobody looks, nobody questions, nobody cares, (until it affects them that is).

“We will protect you from harm and punish the bad-doers.” Who could argue with that?

“It is better to risk saving a guilty man than to condemn an innocent one.”

— Voltaire

Oh him…


(Posey, 2011) “Existing evidence does not support the notion that black males are more likely to commit drug crimes—far from it. Instead, whites use illegal drugs at much the same rates as blacks. (National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 2002) Young whites are in fact more likely to sell drugs than are young black males. (Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention) Still, the war on drugs is almost entirely fought in poor neighborhoods inhabited by people of color. In 2000, African Americans and Latinos made up over three fourths of all those sent to prison for drug offenses.”

Posey, S. (2011). The drug war, minorities and the rust belt., Retrieved from

2 Comments leave one →
  1. January 26, 2012 6:36 pm

    Thank you for the cross-reference, pingback, or whatever that is called.

    You’ve written a provocative and informative essay. I had never heard the term, lex talionis, before. I frankly, have never understood religious thought and teachings. It seems that religious texts from each of the belief systems are rife with astounding contradictions. The lex talionis vs Mathew’s turn the other cheek conundrum being one of many contradictions that can be found in Christian as well as Islamic texts.

    I also find it astounding that really intelligent people can relinquish their reasoning by allowing some translated version of “the word of God” to govern their journey through “right” and “wrong” or black and white….always, of course, neglecting all the gradations in between.

    One thing that would make your essay a slight bit more reader-friendly would be if you would identify what OT and NT stand for, the first time you use them. Perhaps you’ve discussed these elsewhere in this blog, but since I landed on just this page, I kept backtracking and trying to figure out what these acronyms represent. (Just a thought.)

    • January 30, 2012 2:08 pm

      Hi Linda, thank you for the very thought full comment and the gentle but much appreciated suggestion. I write about these issues because they trouble me but what troubles me more is that in most cases “we” already know how to or that we can do better. I find it perplexing that we as individuals and as a society continue to cling to anachronistic ideas myths and policies which simultaneously drag us down and reinforce the current lunacy all in one fell swoop. (Perhaps that is the “genius” of it though.) Frankly I really didn’t expect anyone to actually take the time to read any of my posts; I just have to do it from time to time like yawning or stretching one can’t resist the doing of them once they’ve begun. I suspect that you are a “free thinker”, what a delightful thought.
      Sincerely, Duane

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