The sixth Babylonian king, Hammurabi, around the year 1770 BC, enacted a code of law which looked at crimes and punishments in terms of “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth”. For example, his 196th law says “If a man destroys the eye of another man, they (law-enforcers) shall destroy his eye. If one breaks a man’s bone, they shall break his bone”. This was about 3800 years ago. But the way in which many societies and nations are looking at crimes and punishments today does not appear to match the human development that has taken place over these centuries.
When crimes are prescribed mathematically calculated punishments, what we miss out is the complexities of human mind which make people act differently under different circumstances. Many who commit crimes often have criminally predisposed minds due to genetic factors, indoctrination by influentially close people, childhood miseries, traumatic experiences, absence of dependable parents, improper social and economic environments, mental or personality disorders etc. Despite this and our otherwise celebrated development as human race, many seem to believe even today in criminal justice systems of the type that Hammurabi propagated, missing out on the factor of criminally predisposed minds of many of the offenders.
No society can abolish criminal justice system and its punishments if it were to ensure orderly social living. But the question is, – does it have to be in a primitive, revenge-taking manner or after considering the aspects like mental make-up of the offender? Psychiatry and Psychology have already identified mental and personality disorders which are capable of criminally predisposing people. The irony is that most criminal justice systems world over fail to consider such conditions with the seriousness that they deserve.
Empathy can be considered as the touchstone of a socially normal human mindset. Most people with a disordered mind have impaired empathy. They fail to think and feel being in the other person’s shoes while committing crimes, big or small. The fact is that they are like that not out of their own choices, but out of the state of their minds over which they often do not have any control. It is also a fact that many legal systems world over fail to recognise the prevalence of such conditions with seriousness. In such a scenario, it is only in rare cases that psychiatric and psychological assessments of the offender’s mindset and behaviour are carried out by the courts of law.
When it comes to our social living, it is all about minds, – the minds of people. The human development so far should have enabled people to move away from “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” dictum while dealing with offences of criminally predisposed people. We do have the wherewithal today to make a reasonably correct assessment of people’s minds and behaviour. It may be possible to identify the predisposed ones and deal with them as such if such assessments are done in the cases of all criminal offenders as a standard practice. More than the punishment, what they need is empathy from the socially normal people (the general public). The collective social empathy towards them will lead to their treatment and rehabilitation which they deserve more than the doses of mathematical and often barbaric punishments like the death penalty. While considering this, let us remember that as a race, we human beings have moved over many centuries from the times of the Babylonian king Hammurabi!