Wednesday, March 25, 2009

General Deterrence and an Eye for an Eye

Ameneh Bahrami was a young woman in her twenties who worked as an electronics technician. She lived in Tehran, Iran, and in her free time she enjoyed photography and sight seeing. Several years earlier, when she was in university, she and some friends gave some clothes to a bedraggled, younger student named Majid Movahedi. Movahedi fell madly and obsessively in love with her and pursued her for several years. Finally, Bahrami made it clear that she would not marry Movahedi. “Continue with your life,” she told him. “There is absolutely no hope for us.” What Movahedi did next forever altered Bahrami’s life and stirred a national controversy in Iran. Movahedi staked out her office, and then as she was leaving one day, he poured sulfuric acid over her, permanently blinding and disfiguring her.

Iran, of course, is a fundamentalist Islamic country, and Bahrami petitioned the courts to punish her attacker according to Islamic jurisprudence. Recently, an Iranian court accepted her request and ordered that five drops of sulfuric acid be placed in each of Bahrami’s eyes so that he will be blinded in a similar manner--literally an eye for an eye.

As sociologists, we could examine this heartbreaking story in terms of gender and domestic violence or we might use it to explore the role of religion and the law. Instead, I want to address a different aspect of it, and that involves Bahrami’s and the court’s reasoning for this punishment.

In explaining her reasoning for requesting this punishment, Bahrami said that she wanted to prevent this type of crime from happening to any one else. “I am doing that because I don’t want this to happen to any other women.” The courts agreed with her. “If propaganda is carried out on how acid attackers are punished, it will prevent such crimes in the future," said Mahmoud Salarkia.

This motivation for punishment—to prevent future crimes by others—illustrates the criminological concept of general deterrence. Deterrence refers to preventing crime, and general deterrence is punishing one person as a way to prevent the crimes of others. Here in the United States, punishing criminals is also viewed as a general deterrent; in fact, that’s one of the arguments for the death penalty. By killing criminals who have killed, the criminal justice system might prevent future killings.

General deterrence works best when potential criminals find out about punishments given to previous law-breakers. So, punishing someone quietly with no one else knowing would have little general deterrence effect. It is not unreasonable, then, to expect that the sulfur-in-eyes punishment of Majid Movahedi might have some deterrent effect, for the case has become widely known, and the brutality of the punishment might make other men in Iran think twice before similarly attacking a woman.

Related to general deterrence is the concept of specific deterrence, when a person is punished not to prevent other people from committing crimes but rather to prevent that person from committing future crimes. For example, locking someone up in jail creates specific deterrence because it makes it difficult for that person to commit additional crimes (at least against the general population). The proposed punishment of Movahedi would also serve as a specific deterrent, for it will be more difficult for him to attack people if he’s blind.

The idea of deterrence assumes rationality among criminals. The reasoning goes like this: If society makes known the costs of crime, people should be less likely to participate in it. What if, however, criminals are not responsive to the costs of crime? Given Movahedi’s very strong emotions at the moment he injured Bahrami, would knowledge of future punishments kept him from attacking her? It’s unclear, but we might expect strong punishments to deter rationally-based crimes, such as theft, more strongly than emotionally-based crimes.

The application of general deterrence has its own issues, for not only does the victim have rights, but so does the attacker—though they forsake many of them when they commit crime. Is it reasonable to punish one person harshly in order to benefit other people? Is it appropriate for society to “make an example” of someone? In the story above, Bahrami is such a sympathetic figure that it’s easy to overlook these issues, but they still stand.

Questions remain about the effectiveness and appropriateness of general deterrence, and yet it stands as one of society’s main defenses against law-breaking. Do you think general or specific deterrence work? If so, in what situations might they be most effective?

(Originally posted on


Anonymous said...

Another element of crimes like Movahedi's may be that the criminal believes that his actions are, on some level, socially sanctioned. Certainly the manner of the crime reflects its social context, since angry men in Western cultures tend to use methods other than sulphuric acid to express their feelings. By carrying out this punishment, the Iranian government sends a strong signal that such crimes are not tolerated. It's a signal to potential future criminals that their actions are not justified and will not receive support in society at large. I think that enhances its deterrent effect. Yes, it's an emotional crime, but one of the emotions driving it is a sense of entitlement - the criminal believes that he has the right to behave this way, and that his rights will be recognized by others.

Anonymous said...

I agree completely with the first commenter's point about the Iranian government making some decisions here about what would be socially sanctioned going forward. In this case, we have plenty of quotes from the attacker in court and in the press beforehand to demonstrate that he had no regard whatsoever for Ameneh Bahrami as a person. More than that, it's clear that his attitudes are fundamental to the males of the culture. This court case could be the country's equivalent of a declaration of women's suffrage. We are watching history at work here.