GRAPPLING WITH REVENGE
ROBERT J. LEWIS
seeking revenge, dig two graves - one for yourself.
The best revenge is to be unlike him who performed the injury.
Nature can be vanquished
only if we recognize her authority
and allow her fatalities their true role.
Decidedly unimpressed with the prerogatives of human nature,
the sages, when reviewing the long list of candidates for the
exclusive Seven Deadly Sins club, decided that revenge -- as
a manifestation of Wrath (anger, hatred) – should be included.
They confidently assigned the shortest shrift to everyday experience
and the good reasons that justify avenging evil doing.
Thus, the laws of most lands ask that we refrain from taking
revenge because, pace the logical positivists, the passions
are to be mistrusted, and deliberately causing serious if not
fatal injury to someone in the name of revenge reflects poorly
on the individual and the values of the society he represents.
At the same time, we feel there is a natural kinship between
revenge and justice as it concerns rules of conduct and their
application. Ralph Waldo Emerson writes that the innate existence
of the retributory faculty predicts the imperfect world we inhabit,
as the wings of a bird in the egg presuppose air. Properly channeled,
revenge motivates the individual and, by extension, society
to address (correct) unacceptable behaviour. Revenge is the
passionate implementation of society’s dispassionate laws.
When an angry man turns on the drunk driver who has killed his
child, or when the masses turn on their tyrranical leaders (Ceausescu,
Saddam, Gaddafi), we usually don't debate the legality of it
but conclude that the brutes got what they deserved, that justice
was served. We note that the courts will exonerate the man who
kills the person caught red-handed strangling his wife, but
will punish him for taking the law into his own hands if he
kills the culprit during an escape attempt. Such are the unreasonable
if not prodigious demands imposed on human nature by the law
and its categorical rejection of retributive justice.
Prior to the formal establishment of law, revenge served as
an invaluable deterrent and played a major role in shaping a
society's values and regulating its conduct.
When our primal predecessors lived in tribes, those who were
– by nature – short-changed on revenge would soon
find themselves overwhelmed by an unrevenged enemy that, with
impunity, took what it needed and wanted when it wanted. Since
the enemy survived and propagated its own, wrongdoing ended
up doing right.
And yet from Confucius to Ghandi -- “an eye for an eye
only ends up making the whole world blind” -- our wisest
have counseled against revenge, though conceding that the feeling
is perfectly natural. Today, for the sake of the greater society,
we are asked to sublimate the instinct by devolving the responsibility
of taking revenge to our more responsible (dispassionate) institutions
of justice. But if the much adored and copiously downloaded
revenge-film genre is any indication, we do so reluctantly,
Brain-imaging scans show that when we anticipate eating a favourite
food or contemplating revenge, the dorsal striatum part of the
brain is rewarded; that same area lights up following nicotine
and cocaine consumption. That 'revenge feels good' is not merely
a figure of speech but a quantifiable physiological response
to unacceptable personal affront.
Revenge is a dish best served cold. However, when acted upon,
it is seldom as sweet as anticipated because it does not undo
the original offense that triggered it, which makes it, as a
practical consideration, more of an adjunct of law and order
than a lust to be satisfied.
In Daniel Grou’s gruesome film, The 7 Days of Retaliation,
the protagonist's (Dr. Hamel) 8-year-old daughter has been brutally
raped and murdered. The doctor finds himself deeply unsatisfied
with the pace of justice and decides to take matters into his
own hands. He arranges to kidnap the murderer -- whose DNA leaves
no doubt as to his guilt -- and in the spirit of retribution
announces to the authorities that he’s going to torture
and murder the pervert and then give himself up a week later,
on the day his daughter would have turned nine.
The cabin where the revenge tryst takes place is arranged to
resemble a slaughterhouse, the lighting is grim save for Caravaggio-like
flames of interior light falling on the naked squirming pedophile’s
morgue-white body whose cries for mercy go unheeded. If revenge
porn is your thing, this film presses all the right buttons.
The blood reckoning is off the charts and I couldn’t wait
for the good doctor to surgically remove the murderer’s
penis without the benefit of an anesthestic. Wish granted. And
when the avenger finally turns himself over to the authorities,
without having, as promised, killed his daughter's killer, we
want the laws of the land to acquit – which speaks to
the ambiguity unleashed by emotion of revenge: on the one hand
it’s barbaric, on the other hand it’s natural and
Playing both hands with impartial conviction, the film forces
the viewer to confront his own raging appetite for revenge –
and then the utility of its operations when left unhinged. The
film asks: since revenge is deeply embedded in the human psyche
(it cannot be talked away) what is the individual to do when
the law fails to extinguish its fires?
Reduced to its lowest common denominator, revenge is the unapologetic
(demi)urge to eliminate the genes of the person who has committed
an unpardonable crime not only against an individual, but society:
its core beliefs, its organizing principles, its present and
future face. Revenge, with nature’s blessings, identifies,
condemns and executes in order to extirpate toxic genes from
the body politic. As an enforcement tool, it shapes and affirms
the ethical codes upon which every stable society depends.
The pedophile who has raped and murdered has not only broken
the law, he has broken and violated a sacred trust. For the
sake and vigour of the gene pool and the ideals and hopes it
carries and transmits from one generation to the next, not only
do we desire revenge, but upon calm reflection, we may very
well deem the taking of revenge a duty to both self and society,
and to ignore that imperial 'calling of conscience' is to risk
leaving ourselves civilizationally wracked with discontent –
the Freudian formula for neurosis. The film makes the argument
that whatever revenge is, it should not be one of the Seven
Is it fair or reasonable for society to expect someone whose
family has been butchered to be satisfied with a lengthy incarceration,
which if long enough is tantamount to eliminating the offender's
genes? Time does not heal 'all' wounds nor does it heal uniformly
In Canada, a young man who murders at 18 may find himself free
before the age of 40, and potentially capable of passing on
his defective genes and/or defective behavioural disposition
to his offspring, which raises the question of capital punishment,
which raises the even greater question of intractable errors
in the judicial system, which is why most civilized countries
explicitly outlaw the death penalty. But even in the best case
scenario, we know that the maximum punishment prescribed by
the courts often falls short of the injured party's understanding
of what constitutes just punishment. Which begs the question:
should our laws concerning crime and punishment be tweaked to
be better aligned with human nature?
If we decide that it is barbaric to execute the pedophile who
has raped and murdered, should the law, at a very minimum, grant
the aggrieved a say in the punishment – the manner in
which the felon will pass his incarceration, at least until
he either deceases in prison or is set free?
Is it reasonable to suggest that as long as the pedophile-murderer
lives, he should be obliged to serve the family he has violated;
meaning during and after his sentence has been served, all fruits
of his life’s endeavors, however paltry, should go to
the family? Should the surviving family members, in addition
to the prison sentence, be offered the option of prescribing
either castration or lobotomy? Of course the latter precludes
repentance and rehabilitation. More generally, what concessions,
if any, should be made to the cause and effect engendered by
revenge that will do a society proud before the nations of the
more thought we offer to revenge and all that it implies, the
thornier the issue becomes. If we are to get the better of the
reflex, that is learn how to more productively work with it,
we will have to stand unflinching before the mirror and shake
hands not only with the executioner but also the stranger who
has a score to settle and a broken heart to mend. Only then
will we be in a position to better understand our conflicted
nature and the kind of freedom we are seeking.