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Monthly Archives: May 2013

The Woolwich Decapitation Attack, the Oresteia, & The Law of an Eye for an Eye

I wrote two weeks ago a draft as follows: The Oresteia, gives us the lens of an older, ancient system of justice: the lex talionis, the law of revenge. This is the law as set forth in Moses: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. Here, it is a life for a life, the blood feud, initiated by child deaths, when Iphigenia was sacrificed for good winds to sail to war. The ‘elders’ – the old gray men tasked with enforcing the laws – failed to condemn this act. Consequently the ancient laws sought their own revenge.

Just when I begin to believe a text like the Oresteia has lost its relevance, enter Woolwich Decapitation Attack in London. If you haven’t seen the video – and I’ve watched it so you don’t have to – after delivering the coup de grace to soldier Lee Rigby, the attackers street filmed themselves in the street giving their manifesto – replete with blood stained hands while an indifferent shopper brushes by – proclaiming that they’ve struck an eye for an eye a tooth for a tooth for the lives lost every year in Nigeria. I don’t say anyone should see this. Just that they should know in fact that the ugly debris of colonialism has washed up on our shores in its bloody, primitive law. Heart of Darkness meets the Oresteia, in its structure and narrative, this video shadows the freakish stage delivery of a fifteen-hundred year old text.

The Oresteia is a play structured in four books – the fourth comedy having been lost. Apparently, this was the art of Greek Tragedy, to be able to integrate from horrific acts into a comedic denouement, although I have no idea how, since I haven’t read it. The play portrays classical Greek patriarchy as overlaid upon an older matriarchal society with ancient laws – perhaps the laws of psychology. In Book I, Agamemnon – hero of the Iliad, has returned home victorious from the Trojan War. In addition to the blood of war, it is time for him to settle up his debts with the older, darker vengeful deities for killing his daughter for the war effort. Agamemnon answers to her mother, Clytemnestra, with blood for the death of Iphigenia.

Agamemnon brings with him the spoils of war: the beautiful and cursed Cassandra priestess of Apollo and princess of Troy. Although she is doomed, Cassandra tells the bloody history of Agamemnon’s house: small children were killed and fed to their fathers, releasing the intergenerational curse on the house. Cassandra also dies, and the grounds of her curse of prophesy are given to us. In Book II, Orestes avenges his mother for the death of Agamemnon, then is pursued by the furies of revenge into Book III, where he seeks sanctuary at the shrine of Pallas Athena, representing wisdom and persuasion. There, the beauty of the Oresteia unfolds in its transformation from darkness to light, as Pallas Athena delivers to Athens their jury system. She includes the concept of restorative justice, and the furies of revenge – who’ve been denied their ancient justice in blood – are offered a new role as the patron deities of Athens. They take the deal, transforming from dark to light, and introducing the concept of restorative justice.

Back to the Woolwich attacks. The attacker in the video speaks with a British accent, without Nigerian cadence. My understanding from the news is that this is a man of “Nigerian descent.” I take that to mean that the atrocities he speaks of he has not witnessed, but has only heard of, and I’m unsure the connection to modern British soldiers outside of his delusions. This is important to me, because I am wary of the twisted psychologies that comes to our safe shores in the hearts and minds of the refugees of war. He speaks of having engaged in this atrocity in revenge for what people supposedly see every day in Nigeria. I am unaware, to be truthful, of British involvement in Nigeria since the 1960s. I could be wrong though. My understanding is that several human rights groups have called for prosecution of internal atrocities, but I have no accurate information.

But the man there, the one in the video, hasn’t faced the truth of his call: An eye for an eye is not satisfied with only one death for a death. Instead, a new claim for new blood is founded by each act of revenge. Under his law, the laws of psychology, the lex talionis system is renewed, where each actor is equally culpable and justified in his involvement. And that cycle justified the violent, outraged backlash against the British Muslim community.

Britain, for the record, historically independently developed its Common Law for the same purpose of preventing blood feuds and vendettas during the days of kings. I can’t find answers in the biblical canons, nor the Talmud or Sharia, about what to do with a man like this, as these systems appear focused on sin and compliance with divine laws. I simply don’t know what they do with the evil they find in the world. But evil is in Britain through this man and his motives, not personified as a character in the bible. The lex talionis is a psychological system governing contact with evil but can’t regulate it, relying on action in retribution, I suppose. But a judicial system, on the other hand, is designed to halt the cycles of retribution. Each is judged on his actions and charges and reasons and mitigating factors and aggravating factors, but each is a “final” judgment.