Monday, May 2, 2011


     Osama bin Laden was killed today. This morning Americans all over the country, from baseball parks to the White House to Ground Zero, are being shown on tv cheering that news. Congratulations are coming in to the Obama administration from around the world. The phrase of the day—spoken by the President, the Secretary of State, and just about everyone else—is “Justice has been served.” In other words, although no one in an official position will put it this way, “Vengeance is ours.”
     That makes today a good day to write about revenge.
     Legal philosophers have long observed that one of the purposes of a civilized system of laws is to control the revenge impulse. (Full disclosure: Most of what little I understand of this subject comes from Chapter 2 of legal scholar, polymath, and federal judge Richard Posner’s book Law and Literature, which I taught in my Literature and the Law class for six years at Virginia Tech. He uses The Iliad and Hamlet as his examples of revenge literature.)
     In primitive, pre-legal social systems, revenge served two purposes: 1) It satisfied the “revenge impulse,” which is simply the desire to hurt someone who has hurt you, and 2) It served as a deterrent, warning others who might hurt you that if they made you suffer, they would suffer in return. Straightforward eye-for-an-eye retribution was the simplest form of revenge. If someone killed your son, for example, you would kill their son to exact revenge.
     But there are many problems with revenge-based social systems:
     1) Revenge tends to escalate. If someone kills my son, I might likely, in my anger, kill their entire family. Then, in revenge for that, they might start a war against my entire village. And so on, until all-out tribal or national warfare results.
     2) Revenge is economically inefficient; it wastes resources. If someone kills my son, revenge requires me to gather weapons and perhaps warriors to exact vengeance on his son (or family). In the end, even if I succeed, my son is still dead, and I have used up time, material, and personnel with nothing gained—economically—as a result. (The satisfaction of the revenge impulse and perhaps a measure of deterrence has been gained, certainly. That may be enough emotionally and may even offer some protection against hypothetical future threats, but again, this hypothetical gain is at the expense of current actual resources.)
     3) Revenge-based social systems tend to stress family and tribal loyalty at the expense of larger social goals. If someone kills me, I need assurance that my killing will be avenged by someone else still alive—most likely, my family or my tribe—even if that means the larger community loses resources or, worse, ends up facing outright warfare on a larger scale for a cause in which it may have little at stake. Likewise, revenge-based social systems encourage, on a larger scale, nationalism verging toward chauvinism—a kind of mindless reaction to what are perceived as insults or injuries against one’s nation.
     4) Revenge-based social systems place huge emphasis on the concept of personal, family, and tribal honor, as opposed to larger social loyalties and principles. If my family or tribe is central to my security, and if my strength and protection relies directly on my family or tribe’s strength and the respect it commands, then any insult or slight to my family or tribe is a threat against me. This means that the revenge spiral might begin with something as trivial as name-calling or a social snub.
     5) Revenge-based systems are unstable. Once you have a strong family or tribe, for example, you might be more likely to murder your neighbor’s son or steal his horses because you know he cannot take revenge. In such a system, only the strong are safe, so all sides waste more and more resources in escalating—and destabilizing—shows of strength.
     6) Bottom line: Revenge is irrational. Not only does it waste resources and ignore what the economists would call “sunk costs” (my son whom you killed is a sunk cost), but it also encourages emotions that might lead to a worsening situation: anger, grief, frustration, and reckless, even suicidal impulsiveness.
     Because a revenge-based social system is so dangerous and economically inefficient, more “advanced” societies devised laws to, as Posner puts it, “channel” the revenge impulse. Again, the simplest system involves direct retribution: an eye for an eye. You kill my son; the law allows me to kill yours. Three problems with this: 1) What if you don’t have any sons or other family loved ones for me to kill? 2) What father is going to let his son die for something the father did? 3) Why should an innocent son die, even if his father allows it? 
     Another revenge-channeling system involves compensation: if you kill my horse, you must pay me something for my loss—money or something else of value—to be determined by the courts. In some nations, even today, of course, money is allowed to compensate even for the killing of a person. In fact, the U.S. has paid such “blood money” when it has accidentally killed civilians in Afghanistan and Iraq.
     In most countries today, some form of compensatory law exists to “balance” harm that comes to you through the negligence of another (see the complexities of American tort law). And of course, both criminal and civil penalties apply to those who harm you intentionally.
     All of which is by way of saying that in the U.S. and most of the rest of the world today, simple revenge no longer is the basis of legal action for citizens.
     But that is not the case for nations. Nations create laws that channel their citizens' desire for revenge but, almost by definition, the nations themselves are outside, or above, those very laws. For nations, revenge is still the only law they can apply so that "justice is served.” If you fly planes into our twin towers and our Pentagon, killing 3,000 of our citizens, there is no court our country can go to for compensation. There is no blood money you can pay to satisfy our desire for revenge. Our desire for revenge cannot be channeled. Vengeance must be ours.
     And so we come to today. We have killed Osama bin Laden, and we are cheering.
     Looking back over the last 10 years, since the 9/11 attacks, I can see that we, as a nation, have behaved like a pre-legal, revenge-driven entity, with all the failings that implies. We have sunk huge amounts of resources into two wars—in Iraq and in Afghanistan—without resurrecting one of the 3,000 Americans who died on 9/11. One of those wars—the war in Iraq—was almost certainly more a war based on some kind of national “honor” than a war of military usefulness. Since 9/11, the U.S. “tribe” has sent thousands of our own military personnel to die, primarily in the name of revenge; tens of thousands of our soldiers have been seriously injured; hundreds of thousands of innocent foreign civilians have been killed. This is how revenge escalates violence and wastes lives and resources.
     Many claim that all of this military action was done to prevent future attacks on the U.S. That is open to question. (I question it.) But no one can deny the role that simple vengeance has played in it all. Just look at how America is behaving today, with the news that bin Laden is dead. All of the shouting—“USA! USA!—strikes me as nothing more than a brutal primitive assertion of tribal loyalty in the name of successful vengeance. Even the President and the Secretary of State are indulging in chauvinistic chest-thumping: This proves, they say, what America is capable of! Don’t sell us short! We don’t give up! No one gets away with hurting us!
      It is very much as if they are responding, not just to a physical attack, but to a simple insult to our honor. (“These colors don’t run!”)
     As an atheist, I don’t believe that vengeance belongs to some god, and I don’t feel obliged to believe that it is realistic to ask people to love their enemy, though I find that sentiment morally superior to “get your revenge.” I do wonder, however, at all the Christians I know who today are cheering the death of Osama bin Laden. I wonder: Is that what their New Testament tells them to do?
     The death of Osama bin Laden does not strike me as very important. I don’t believe it will lessen the number of terrorist attacks we’ll face in the future. It doesn’t bring dead people back to life or heal the injured. I suppose it has some small, temporary morale-building value (look at all those cheering crowds!), but that will go away with the next big terrorist attack—and we all know there will be such an attack somewhere, someday, again. I’m mildly pleased that Barack Obama, a President I admire, will experience a jump in the popularity polls next month, thanks to the killing of Osama bin Laden, but that certainly seems the wrong reason to celebrate.
     The irony, of course, is that Osama bin Laden and his terrorists were themselves acting out of a long history of escalating revenge: they were taking revenge on the West and the Israelis for injuries done to Palestinians and other Muslims. And of course the Israelis have acted to avenge injuries done to them. And so on, back through the centuries, all the way to the Crusades and before.
     Our enemies in the Middle East are often depicted as driven by such “primitive” principles as tribal honor and eye-for-an-eye revenge. Today I have to ask: Have we, as a nation, acted any differently?
     Osama bin Laden is dead. So? The cycle of revenge lives on.


  1. I made a similar connection between Osama and the Iliad this morning. Here's the link:

  2. I like your Iliad comparison and the Old Testament quotes, Stan. They seem apropos to me.