There’s a great scene in the movie “The Untouchables,” starring Sean Connery and Kevin Costner, about Elliot Ness and his group of officers trying to take down Al Capone and his ring of criminals.
Connery’s character, a beat cop named Jim Malone, knows that Capone would be perfectly happy to do anything — legal or illegal — to gain more money and more power. So Malone asks Ness what he’s willing to do to get Capone.
“Everything within the law,” Ness answers.
“And then what?” Malone continues. In order to get Capone, Malone tells him, he would need go beyond the law, and strike back harder than whatever he was hit with:
“They pull a knife, you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue. That’s the Chicago Way.”
“The Chicago Way” can be very effective, because punishments don’t just affect the wrong-doers, they send a message — “Don’t mess with me.”
There is a lot of value in preemptively saying, “If you come after me, I will make your life miserable,” because it would obviously prevent anyone from coming after you. In fact, the most effective punishments generally exceed their crimes, because they not only punish the wrong-doer, they act as a powerful deterrents.
But “effective” doesn’t necessarily mean “moral.” And that’s why a societal codification of punishments, such as what we find in the book of Exodus, is so crucial. We know that, unfortunately, some people will hurt others. But the crux of this issue is this: is it individuals meting out this punishment, or is it society? Because societal punishments are going to be much more humane, and much more fair, than vigilante justice.
Indeed, if each person had the right to punish the people who hurt them, then as philosopher Alvin Goodman notes, “[t]his would likely lead to an escalation of private vendettas, substituting reigns of private terror for law and relative tranquility.” (Goldman in Marc Hauser’s Moral Minds, 107, italics mine)
And that’s why “an eye for an eye” (Exodus 21:24) is actually one of the most valuable verses in the Torah — it allows for punishment, but at the same time, it also places limits upon it. It restricts how much we are allowed to punish someone — and so it acts as an important check on our natural tendencies. After all, if someone had put out our eye, with a strong, natural desire both to punish and to send a message of deterrence, when it came time to act, we would much more likely end up poking out two eyes, rather than just one.
So in contrast to “The Chicago Way,” “an eye for an eye” reminds us of two things: first, no matter how hurt we have been, no matter how much of a message we wish to send, the punishment must not exceed the crime. And second, since we humans have a natural desire for revenge, we are not allowed to act on it on our own — we are allowed to act only within the law.
After all, there’s a reason why Al Capone was able to keep a strong hold on his power for so many years. And there’s also a reason why he spent so many years in Alcatraz.