Does revenge help anyone?

Victims need to tell their stories, feel heard -- and sometimes get even. That instinct doesn't usually help

Published April 21, 2013 7:15PM (EDT)

Excerpted from "Payback" by Thane Rosenbaum The grisly terrorist attack at the Boston Marathon was a tragic reminder of how helpless communities can feel in the aftermath of an atrocity. During such traumatic moments, answers are few, the demand for justice is great, and the deep emotions associated with vengeance are often unstated but yet profoundly felt. Addressing the nation only a few hours after the tragedy, President Obama vowed that those who are responsible for this crime “will feel the full weight of justice.” What did the president mean by “justice,” and would it, for most people, look all that much different from revenge? --Thane Rosenbaum

In 2002, Lee Boyd Malvo and John Allen Muhammad, known as the D.C. Snipers, terrorized the citizens of six states and Washington, D.C., by shooting and murdering ten people as part of an Islamic jihad. Because some of the murders were committed in the nation’s capital, then attorney general John Ashcroft had the authority to select which jurisdiction would be given the right to conduct this highly visible and emotionally charged capital murder case. Each of the states wished to hold the trial within its own jurisdiction. In fact, they fought over who would get the first crack at prosecuting the D.C. Snipers with the same ferocity of cities clamoring to host the Super Bowl. The only difference: Super Bowls are moneymakers; high-profile capital murder trials end up rivaling the defense budget of a small country. Economically speaking, murder trials are money losers.

Ashcroft chose Virginia, and the state tried the case in 2003. Muhammad received a death sentence, which was carried out in 2009. Malvo was given a life sentence without parole.

The D.C. Snipers capital murder trial cost the citizens of Virginia millions of dollars. But the meter continued to run. Immediately after Muhammad and Malvo were sentenced, the five other states insisted that they be given a chance to pursue their own capital murder cases. They wanted these prosecutions held in their own courtrooms, brought on behalf of their own murder victims, and with their own citizens serving as jurors.

Clearly there was no rational reason for doing so. Not only would duplicative trials be wasteful, costly, and redundant, but they also might expose errors or improprieties in the Virginia trial, which could have opened a door for the defense team to undo the earlier verdict. Aside from spending millions of taxpayers’ dollars simply to accomplish the same thing as what had already been achieved in Virginia, there was a real risk of prejudicing the outcome. Besides, Muhammad could only be executed once, and Malvo had but one life with which to serve his life sentence. Why not simply take a free ride courtesy of the tax-paying citizens and victorious state prosecutors of Virginia?

The prosecutors of the other states hadn’t yet had their shot at the D.C. Snipers. They wanted their turn. They weren’t concerned about wasting taxpayer dollars. In fact, they knew that the citizens of their states weren’t worried about the costs either. Holding separate trials in each state had enormous moral and symbolic value that couldn’t be measured in money.

What these citizens wanted most was a public reckoning where the crimes committed against their own state residents would be acknowledged. And they were more than willing to pay for it. Muhammad and Malvo had to be punished for violating the laws of each of these states. Yes, a spectacular waste of money, and surely a waste of time. But there was a duty to the dead—a far greater priority than fiscal discipline—that must be publicly honored.

One Maryland prosecutor said, “We had six homicide victims here in Montgomery County; none of them has had their day in court. Neither has the community at large had their day in court.” A Louisiana prosecutor echoed a similar sentiment, “They murdered a nice Baton Rouge woman. . . . They have a date with Louisiana justice. I’ll do everything I can to make sure that they will make that date.”

Th e evolutionary development of humankind depended on sending a clear message to wrongdoers that no attack or insult will go unanswered. The reciprocity of payback had to be certain and expected. Aside from enforcing a practice of deserved retaliation, it also established an organizing principle of reciprocity—all scores will be settled, and all acts of kindness, friendship, and cooperation will be met, in kind, with similar positive gestures. The former deters misdeeds; the latter produces trust.

The game theory tit for tat demonstrates how this works. A rational man would naturally always gravitate toward reciprocity and mutual advantage, which tit for tat virtually assures so long as both parties are rational and neither chooses to defect from the game. If the first move is positive, the second player will reciprocate—tit for tat. Each reciprocal act of cooperation will invite yet another act of mutual advantage. Once one of the actors does something that requires not an act of cooperation (a defection) but rather an act of retaliation, the second player will respond in kind. At this point, however, it is still possible for the parties to resume cooperation rather than repeated retaliations. The party who defected first must be forgiven. And in order for that to occur, he must respond with a cooperative act. If he does, then order is restored.

Tit for tat mirrors the logic of the Golden Rule: truly do onto others as they actually do unto you—if they are kind, repay with kindness; if they cause harm, then one must reciprocate with harm. Both sides are on notice that the game is always in play. And they know that falling out of line will not be forgotten: “kindness for kindness; evil for evil.” Not unlike with revenge, tit for tat is a game of measurement and precision. All rational actors know that it is always best to respond cooperatively, to trade in positive gestures rather than to invite retaliation that benefits no one. And best of all, for those who fear vengeance because retaliation can be excessive and disproportionate, tit for tat ensures that retaliation will never exceed the action that invited the response.

The game breaks down, however, when the first act of retaliation is not forgiven, and the wrongdoer responds with a reciprocal act of revenge. Th is is where vengeance becomes recycled, where retaliation rather than mutual cooperation begins to define the relationship between the players who, suddenly, are locked in battle that knows no end. Th e Cold War, with its strategic alliances and diplomatic maneuvers, very much resembled a game of tit for tat—one with, however, annihilating implications. Ongoing hostilities are clearly not mutually beneficial, and the recycling of vengeance is ultimately self-destructive and irrational. The rationality of tit for tat has its own internal logic—you get what you give. Th e endgame is reciprocity itself—the players are empowered to decide whether the game will be
mutually rewarding or infinitely annihilating. Those who cooperate are rewarded; defectors are punished. Without reciprocity there will be open season on whoever develops a reputation for always backing down.

There are still even more refutations of rational choice theory when it comes to revenge. The Prisoner’s Dilemma demonstrates how the rational actor might be forced to make a decision that, in the end, doesn’t appear to be rational or in anyone’s self-interest. Two prisoners are separately interrogated for a crime they jointly committed. If both keep silent and do not implicate the other, the authorities will not have sufficient evidence against either one and they will possibly both be set free. If each blames the other—essentially defecting from the game of mutual trust—then the consequences of the Prisoner’s Dilemma are revealed: both will be punished severely, although their cooperation with the authorities will be taken into account. If, however, only one accepts the deal and implicates the other, then the snitch will receive immunity and be set free, while the prisoner who maintained his silence and refused to betray his co-conspirator will take the fall and receive the harshest sentence. Since that is the worst outcome of all, the rational prisoner will avoid the trap of the prisoner’s dilemma by simply hedging his bets and ratting out the other. Th at way, at least, he won’t be left alone to suffer the consequences of his crime while his duplicitous colleague is set free.

Th e dilemma that the prisoners must confront is that locked away in separate holding rooms and, in some cases, having no prior social bonds between them, they would have no reason to trust one another. If they had complete trust, then they would both be set free. The absence of trust, however, assures that both will be punished. No one wants to be the only one to take the blame and pay the full price while the other receives the windfall of walking away. Each prisoner rolls the dice that his partner in crime might not defect, in which case the one who does will ultimately go free. For this reason, the most rational choice is also the least optimal one since it requires mistrust and defection. In a world of reciprocal altruism, all prisoners would know to trust one another and always cooperate. No good comes from defection. But rational actors have little faith in altruism and surely know not to count on it. Mutual advantage and trust will set the prisoners free, but they are stuck with the dilemma that rational men and women instinctively know: defectors are more plentiful, and predictable, than cooperators.

Robert C. Solomon has written that games and tactics such as tit for tat and the Prisoner’s Dilemma depend on retaliation—both the threat and its occasional delivery—to make cooperation possible. The cheater or defector needs to be reminded that there is a cost to taking liberties with mutual trust. The amount of the cooperation depends on the certainty of retaliation. The lessons of game theory are the same lessons of survival that social animals had to once learn. Humankind would have become an evolutionary failure had it chosen a life of perpetual forgiveness and the tolerance of endless defection. Solomon writes, “Vengeance is not the antagonist to rationality but its natural manifestation.”

Once again, however, what is rational for the individual might not be tolerable for society. States can’t afford the social costs of never-ending games of tit for tat that are played like duels rather than love fests, where neither party is willing to break the cycle and cooperate. Over time, the game is played to destruction or to one party’s disappearance. The ultimate demise of the Soviet Union, which had no tat in response to America’s Star Wars program, is one example of this brinksmanship.

But here’s another dilemma: if revenge is biologically imprinted in the brain and if the evolutionary history of humankind came to expect both the threat and anticipation of vengeance, and if revenge is ultimately both rational and potentially destructive, then what are we to do with this instinct that can’t be stopped, feels so good, and yet demands that we somehow control it?

The answer is neither simple nor hopeful. After all, governments and legal systems do a poor job of acting as surrogates for revenge. Private acts of vengeance carry too many risks. Neuroscience informs us that the human brain cannot tolerate injustice and lights up like a slot machine when it anticipates the delivery of justice. Still, revenge is not a complete panacea, largely because legal retribution is often uneven, private vengeance is hard to measure, and what passes for the rational choice might not lead to the
optimal outcome.

And there are those who say that for all its purported sweetness, in the end, revenge is ultimately unsatisfying. Vengeance doesn’t actually fulfill its promise of true satisfaction; getting even doesn’t make the avenger feel any better.

A study conducted in 2008 and appearing in the Journal of Personal and Social Psychology, titled “The Paradoxical Consequences of Revenge,” sought to refute the presumption that revenge leads to catharsis and relief, that it produces the necessary closure that is impossible to achieve any other way. Far from delivering closure, the report claims, vengeance actually increases the amount of unsettled aggression that existed before. Those who say “Get it out of your system and go punch a speed bag” would be surprised
to learn that punching a bag actually increases one’s aggression. The anger doesn’t actually get out of your system; it stays put right where it was before, but now fully reenergized. The report concludes that people grossly over estimate how much the intensity of their anger and its duration would subside if vengeance was made available to them.

In the 2004 Swiss study led by de Quervain and her colleagues, increased blood flow to the dorsal striatum of the brain, the region closely related to pleasure and satisfaction, was activated one minute prior to when the wrongdoer (free rider) was due to be punished—meaning that it measured only the anticipation of punishment and not its aftermath, when vengeance had been taken and the avenger might feel altogether differently. The focus of the study was on the expectation of altruistic punishment—the pleasure that came with its anticipation—and not the actual state of mind of the avenger once the punishment was delivered.

The 2008 study was designed to show the actual experience of witnessing the punishment itself (the brain scans were performed anywhere from one to ten minutes later), which did not match the joy that came from the anticipation of revenge. The avengers were found to be less happy after all. The study found that “people believed that exacting revenge would bring closure, in the sense that they would think less of the free rider, when in fact it had the opposite effect—punishing the free rider made people think about her more, which in turn made them feel worse.”

Revenge might feel good as a fantasy, but not in reality. Does this undermine the entire revenge enterprise? Why undertake the time and risk of tracking down and punishing a wrongdoer if the ordeal ends up like that lament in the Rolling Stones’ song, where the avenger simply “can’t get no satisfaction”? Neuroscientists can prove that the anticipation of revenge activates the blood flow to the brain. But once revenge is finally taken, the blood flow diminishes like a burst balloon. The circuitry lights up for the craving but not the completion.

Revenge is sweet, but sometimes its aftertaste is bittersweet. There is often ambivalence in the aftermath of vengeance. There can be both elation and, then, letdown. And the avenger can become guilt-ridden or remain bereft and without closure. But this neither should come as much of a surprise nor does it rob vengeance of its entwined connection to justice.

In Steven Spielberg’s film Munich, the Israeli assassins assigned to kill the Palestinians who were responsible for the murder of the Israeli Olympic team in 1972 spend their nights arguing over the moral implications of their task. With each assassination there is seemingly less of a feeling of relief. Doubt enters their conversations. They lavish attention and appetite over their dinners but feel no satisfaction from the vengeance they are feasting on with noteworthy success. Yet they know their duty and what the wrong-doers deserve, and so they forge on avenging the murders committed by Black September—but, again without ever feeling satisfied.

In the films Braveheart (1995) and Gladiator (2000), the avengers are never given the chance to experience the satisfaction that should otherwise result from their vengeance. In both films the avenger is dead before the score is ultimately settled, or he dies in the process of redeeming the debt. In the classic Hollywood Westerns The Searchers (1956) and Unforgiven (1992), the avengers complete their task, but there is no happy ending, no realized satisfaction, nothing approximating joyful fulfillment. They simply walk away or return home no happier or accomplished than before.

When it comes to vengeance and justice, it shouldn’t really matter how the avenger feels afterward. All that is important is that the emotion is acted on and that the injustice is not ignored—that no moral revulsion comes from the unsettled debt. A happiness quotient is not the standard; satisfaction is achieved by following through with the duty to avenge without regard to whether it puts a smile on the avenger’s face. Happiness and satisfaction are two very different endgames. Some avengers will feel satisfied; others will feel ambivalent or won’t know exactly how to feel. Revenge is not immune to self-doubt. It is the revenge itself that is obligatory and absolute; the avenger doesn’t have to feel elation or relief—he or she merely has to get the job done. What matters is that honor is reclaimed and all debts are redeemed. Everything else is beyond the scope of vengeance or comes merely as an added bonus.

While the avenger doesn’t need to be made joyful, it is especially important that the wrongdoer be made apprised of why, specifically, he is being made to suffer. Political philosopher Robert Nozick observed that there is a necessary personal tie between the avenger and wrongdoer. They are forever bound by the wrongdoer’s deed and the avenger’s loss. And this relationship must officially announce itself. After years of toil and then strategic planning, the Count of Monte Cristo let it be known to those who did him wrong that he was actually the betrayed Edmond Dantes, who has finally returned to claim his revenge. Law professor William Ian Miller wondered “what satisfaction could there be in not letting your target know what hit him and for what reason?”

In the 2009 study conducted in Germany, researchers found that participants were satisfied by taking revenge for wrongs done to them, and even more satisfied if the wrongdoer was duly informed why revenge was being taken. The study concludes: “Our findings corroborate the notion that revenge aims at delivering a message between the victim/avenger and the offender, and that revenge is only effective if this message is understood. . . . The message of revenge . . . [is]: ‘Never do this to me again.’”

In the film The Princess Bride, Inigo Montoya spends his entire life perfecting his swordsmanship and seeking vengeance against the six-fingered man who murdered his father and scarred both his life and his face. He prepares a speech in anticipation of when he will finally confront his father’s killer: “Hello, my name is Inigo Montoya, you killed my father, prepare to die.”

The film astutely recognizes that while Montoya might have devoted his entire life to honoring his father by avenging his murder, the final vindication does not have to include his own personal happiness. What’s more important is that, in receiving his just deserts, the six-fingered man must also be made aware of the reason why his life must now come to an end. Similarly, in Law Abiding Citizen, the avenger says to the assailant before killing him, “I know what it feels like to be helpless, just like when I watched you slaughter my whole family.” In the Showtime dramatic series Dexter, a rogue vigilante prowls sunny South Florida in search of murderers that the Miami legal system has failed to punish. Before ending their lives and avenging the memory of their victims, Dexter surrounds them with the photos of all those they had killed as a symbolic reminder of the scores that are now, finally, being settled.

The satisfaction is in the doing and the enunciation of purpose. The feelings that surface in the aftermath of revenge are not the true measures of vindication. Human beings may experience ambivalence, but that doesn’t lessen the moral imperative, which begins with the moral injury and continues until justice is achieved.

On killing the six-fingered man, Montoya acknowledges, “You know, it’s very strange. I have been in the revenge business so long, now that it’s over, I don’t know what to do with the rest of my life.”

Revenge isn’t supposed to lead to happiness. Revenge won’t necessarily bring about catharsis or closure, either. Revenge is not a cure to a sickness or the surrendering to a bad habit. It is a duty to the dead, an obligation to stand up for oneself or for another. Whatever damage was done to the victim won’t be repaired if and when the wrongdoer is punished. But that doesn’t alter the obligation. W. H. Auden said this about the “Romantic Avenger Hero”: “My injury is not an injury to me; it is me. If I cancel it out by succeeding in my vengeance, I shall not know who I am and will have to die. I cannot live without it.”

In 2002, during the scandals of the defrocked, pedophile priests throughout Boston, John Geoghan was serving a ten-year sentence for one of 150 accusations of child molestation committed during his time in the priesthood. He sat in jail while many more trials awaited him. But the waiting—of the condemned priest and his tormented victims—came to an end when a fellow prison inmate, Joseph L. Druce, who had been victimized as a child, decided to take vengeance on behalf of the many children who Geoghan had abused. Druce strangled Geoghan in his prison cell, thus ending what would have been years of criminal trials at enormous taxpayer expense, along with endless trauma to those who would have been called to testify.

A most economical final resolution, rationally speaking. The problem was that none of Geoghan’s victims felt relief or gratitude for what Druce had done. On the contrary, they were resentful. No one had deputized Druce to give Geoghan his just deserts. The majority of the former priest’s victims believed that in being strangled in his cell by a stranger, Geoghan actually got off easy. Worse still, they felt that they had been deprived of their day in court. What they wanted was to be able to speak to their own sense of private violation by confronting this purported man of God who had once molested them. And they wanted the right, which they had earned from their victimization, to ask the court directly to punish Geoghan for what he had done. None of the victims had delegated anyone else to speak or act on their behalf.

After each of their trials had been concluded, many would have been pleased to learn that the priest who still gave them nightmares had been strangled to death. Geoghan surely had to be punished. But it was even more essential for his victims to participate in the process of legal retribution, stating their own cases against the accused. They needed a role and an identity as silent avengers, surrogates of the legal system. They were forever tied to the crime; now they needed to be connected to the punishment. No matter how well intentioned or vicariously vindicating Druce may have been, he was not authorized to serve as judge, jury, and executioner—surely not by the victims he had purportedly sought to benefit.

Addressing the importance of this participatory role, Peter French observed that “the taking of revenge usually produces an emotional or psychological state in the avenger, a feeling of pleasure, a sense of accomplishment, a high. That state cannot fully be experienced if the villain has met his or her end in some natural occurrence, for example, by being buried in an avalanche, unless, of course, the avenger triggered the avalanche with the intent to kill the escaping villain. . . . Unless the avenger is the direct or proximate cause of that ruin, vengeance will not have occurred.”

Legal philosophers such as Peter French and Jeffrie G. Murphy have set forth three conditions that must be established before an act of revenge can qualify as justified punishment: it must be deserved; the penalty must be in direct proportion to the harm; and the punishing agent or avenger must have the requisite moral authority to do so. In the case of Geoghan’s prison murder, Druce simply did not have the moral authority to inflict this particular punishment. Revenge works best when the victim participates in the judgment and punishment of the wrongdoer—preferably in concert with the legal process or, if absolutely necessary, as a self-appointed avenger. Victims have preferences. And those preferences challenge the very premises of rational choice theory or the rational actor model. Victims don’t worry about costs or fitting in within predictive models. They recognize what a free ride looks like but know enough to wave it away. Having already once been treated as disposable cast-offs, victims want to be players in the vindication that vengeance brings. If revenge was all about punishment, if it was all blood and no brains, why would anyone care who delivered the punishment? But victims do care—care deeply, in fact—and not all avengers are authorized to settle the score, especially when it’s not their score to settle. How vengeance is accomplished, and by whom, matters greatly.

At bottom, all victims have an Inigo Montoya speech that they wish to recite. And, in the absence of swashbuckling opportunities for self-help, courtrooms are the ideal settings in which to proclaim publicly all of that anguish and rage and to witness justice being done—not in some abstract way, but as a private longing finally fulfilled.

Reprinted with permission from "Payback: The Case for Revenge" by Thane Rosenbaum, published by the University of Chicago Press. © 2013 by Thane Rosenbaum. All rights reserved.

By Thane Rosenbaum

Thane Rosenbaum is the author of The Myth of Moral Justice: Why Our Legal System Fails to Do What’s Right, as well as four novels. His articles, reviews, and essays appear frequently in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Daily Beast, and Huffington Post, among others. He is also the John Whelan Distinguished Lecturer in Law at Fordham Law School and directs the Forum on Law, Culture, and Society.

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