Payback: The Case for Revenge

Payback: The Case for Revenge

by Thane Rosenbaum

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We call it justice—the assassination of Osama bin Laden, the incarceration of corrupt politicians or financiers like Rod Blagojevich and Bernard Madoff, and the climactic slaying of cinema-screen villains by superheroes. But could we not also call it revenge? We are told that revenge is uncivilized and immoral, an impulse that individuals and societies should actively repress and replace with the order and codes of courtroom justice. What, if anything, distinguishes punishment at the hands of the government from a victim’s individual desire for retribution? Are vengeance and justice really so very different? No, answers legal scholar and novelist Thane Rosenbaum in Payback: The Case for Revenge—revenge is, in fact, indistinguishable from justice.    Revenge, Rosenbaum argues, is not the problem. It is, in fact, a perfectly healthy emotion. Instead, the problem is the inadequacy of lawful outlets through which to express it. He mounts a case for legal systems to punish the guilty commensurate with their crimes as part of a societal moral duty to satisfy the needs of victims to feel avenged. Indeed, the legal system would better serve the public if it gave victims the sense that vengeance was being done on their behalf. Drawing on a wide range of support, from recent studies in behavioral psychology and neuroeconomics, to stories of vengeance and justice denied, to revenge practices from around the world, to the way in which revenge tales have permeated popular culture—including Hamlet, The Godfather, and Braveheart—Rosenbaum demonstrates that vengeance needs to be more openly and honestly discussed and lawfully practiced. 
  Fiercely argued and highly engaging, Payback is a provocative and eye-opening cultural tour of revenge and its rewards—from Shakespeare to The Sopranos. It liberates revenge from its social stigma and proves that vengeance is indeed ours, a perfectly human and acceptable response to moral injury. Rosenbaum deftly persuades us to reconsider a misunderstood subject and, along the way, reinvigorates the debate on the shape of justice in the modern world.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226043692
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 04/10/2013
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 320
File size: 1 MB

About the Author

Thane Rosenbaum is a novelist, essayist, and law professor. He is the author of The Myth of Moral Justice: Why Our Legal System Fails to Do What’s Right, as well as four novels, The Golems of Gotham, Second Hand Smoke,the novel-in-stories, Elijah Visible, and the novel for young adults, The Stranger within Sarah Stein. His articles, reviews, and essays appear frequently in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, and Huffington Post, among others. He lives in New York, where he is the John Whelan Distinguished Lecturer in Law at Fordham Law School and directs the Forum on Law, Culture, and Society.

Read an Excerpt


the case for revenge



Copyright © 2013 Thane Rosenbaum
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-04369-2




Let's take a tour through the head-spinning, backpedaling, morally ambiguous alleyways of revenge. Don't be afraid. I know vengeance conjures many mixed feelings and raw emotions. It's more acceptable to confess to having a kinky taste for porn than to acknowledge harboring feelings of revenge. Vengeance occupies a dark and deeply buried shelf inside the closet of cultural taboos. Rarely is it discussed openly where reputations can be ruined and bad opinions formed. We tend to speak about revenge hypothetically, jokingly, as if we're not to be taken seriously:

"What I am about to say is just between you and me."

"Surely you know I would never do such a thing."

"I'm ashamed to even think it. But I wouldn't mind seeing — — receive what is coming to her."

For Jews around the world who are members of the Conservative denomination, the High Holy Days of 2010 represented yet another death blow for revenge. After nearly forty years (when it comes to the Old Testament, forty years does seem to possess certain magical, symbolic significance), the prayer book, known as the mahzor, which is used during the Days of Awe—the period in the Jewish calendar extending from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur—was updated with a new edition. Aside from its more user-friendly appearance there were some significant changes in substance, too. For instance, no longer would God be described as "awesome," since, in modern times, awesome is the word of choice—for Chosen teenagers as well as Gentiles—to describe just about anything. God shouldn't have to compete with pizza or a pair of jeans, and that's why the mahzor now refers to God simply as "awe-inspiring."

As for other modernizing changes, the prayer book is now more gender neutral and even acknowledges the death of a gay partner. What's more, God himself was not spared a makeover. Apparently, a vengeful God no longer favorably represents the Jewish faith well enough. In the solemn prayer, Avinu Malkeinu, a line that asked God to avenge the killing of Jews, was deleted.

Louis D. Levine, a congregant of Temple Israel in White Plains, New York, wondered about the wisdom, not to mention historical accuracy, of this drastic change in the liturgy. "I am not a warmongering, right-wing nut," he said, "but that line represented a real historical response to the horrors visited upon Israel."

But it also made God look unhinged, so it was removed. The God of the Jews was almighty and, apparently, unavenging, as well. For several thousand years, religions, and then governments, issued commandments, edicts, dire warnings, and, ultimately, mixed signals about vengeance. Now Conservative Jews were being asked to edit their own central texts lest they be reminded that the language of revenge had once been very much part of the prayers of the Jewish people.

Vengeance: expunged from ancient texts, ridiculed as a holdover from a primitive past, and yet longingly stored in the memory bank of humankind. The advance of civilization marches on while the revenge impulse stubbornly refuses to civilize and subside, to simply give up its enduring influence on the human psyche. Vengeance can be curtailed and suppressed, but it can never be truly undone, nor should it. Whether we admit it or not, whether we are permitted to act on it or not, revenge brings order to the moral universe, establishes the proper measurement of our loss, gives voice to indignity, and serves as a necessary equalizer when victims have been rendered low.

Despite all the warnings about revenge and the prohibitions against it, everyone practices it on some level, applauds it when properly exercised, and even dreams about it in their sleep. We see it daily in schoolyards, sports arenas, and halls of Congress; we know that it lurks within the messy details of international affairs, domestic relations, business dealings, and, of course, legal battles. Revenge is life's ultimate dirty little secret and guilty pleasure. In so many dramatic and unavoidable ways it has defined our civilization, influenced our politics and culture, informed our literature, and dominated our private fantasies.

And, yet, there is also a curious schizophrenia about revenge, loopholes where vengeance slips through even amid all the proclamations that revenge is wrong and that justice is a far more important human value than getting even.

A few recent stories of revenge will reveal a culture in conflict with itself when it comes to the proper role that revenge plays in society and in the lives of individuals. They also demonstrate a fundamental confusion about the relationship between vengeance and justice. Everyone makes distinctions between them, with the search for justice widely accepted while the pursuit of vengeance roundly condemned. But are these two concepts so very different? When individuals are in desperate need for justice they qualify their obsession by categorically denying that they are out for revenge. Yet in a very real and unacknowledged sense they believe that they are entitled to both; they simply can't say so in polite company. And that's where the distinction between justice and revenge becomes more of a linguistic exercise than a hard truth. Every effort to mask the human impulse to feel avenged by hiding behind the robes of justice is like a bait and switch among the morally wounded. We know what we mean; we just can't express it openly and honestly.

Several weeks after 9/11, with plans already underway to bomb Afghanistan in retaliation for the most devastating act of terrorism committed against the United States on its own soil, President George W. Bush addressed a large gathering of employees of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)—the very same body, along with the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), that had failed to gather the necessary information and take the appropriate measures to foil al-Qaeda on 9/11.

In explaining the reasons behind the "shock and awe" that America would soon visit on the Taliban in Afghanistan, the president said, "Ours is a nation that does not seek revenge, but we do seek justice."

The audience erupted with applause, and millions of Americans watched highlights of the speech on their nightly news broadcasts or read about it in the morning newspapers. An auditorium packed with FBI agents who despised Osama bin Laden for murdering nearly three thousand American citizens in less than two hours cheered the president for the actions our nation was about to assume and the purported reasons for doing so. Surely the FBI had taken the murderous events of 9/11 personally—almost as personally as the families of the firemen, office workers, and airline passengers and personnel who lost loved ones on 9/11. After all, the FBI had been made to look like bumbling bureaucrats who allowed terrorists to learn how to fly commercial jets under their watch. Naturally they would have profound feelings of anger and hatred. The auditorium may have been filled with men and women of the law, but those badges and shields weren't going to temper their more immediate and impassioned cries for revenge.

Nevertheless, the president was careful to couch our retaliatory response as an act of justice and not as a demonstration of American vengeance. Applause would naturally follow the words of someone who sought justice rather than revenge, even though the feelings that justice and vengeance provoke, in many cases, feel similar. The Taliban were not going to be taken to trial. Conventional justice, as reflected in the powers of subpoena and the procedures of due process, was being subordinated to the more immediate powers of war. Indiscriminate bombing sure looks a lot more like vengeance than like the more measured application of the rule of law.

Why all the misdirection and doublespeak? Why not simply say what was on everyone's mind anyway? The president pulled his punches and chose to recast the reasons why America now found itself duty-bound to unleash such a lethal spectacle. George W. Bush made a distinction between justice and revenge as if everyone was in agreement that the former was socially acceptable while the latter was morally despicable.

The FBI may have grossly mismanaged its intelligence gathering prior to 9/11, but the agents who cheered the president were not stupid. Surely they knew that what was about to happen in Afghanistan wasn't being done in the name of justice alone. Constitutional protections weren't on anyone's mind at that time—including the leadership of Human Rights Watch and the ACLU. Neither the Taliban nor al-Qaeda were going to be given an opportunity to testify in a court of law, to explain why America was Satan and Americans were infidels who all deserved to die.

Moreover, the massive monetary reward that would soon be placed on the head of Osama bin Laden through the Rewards for Justice Program would be claimable by any bounty hunter who could successfully infiltrate the caves of Tora Bora and make certain that bin Laden never made another trash-talking video again. This government-sponsored, nonjudicial program of targeted assassinations resembled vengeance more than justice. It might as well have been titled Rewards for Revenge.

Justice in Afghanistan would come in the form of lethal bombs, not legal tribunals. And ten years later, the war in Afghanistan, and America's progressive withdrawal, still didn't approximate anything that looked like Nuremberg, The Hague, or the International Criminal Court—the familiar faces of "justice" in the global community. The war in Afghanistan, not unlike all retaliatory wars, was to be fought as a legitimate expression of just deserts, a term of art that is oft en synonymous with revenge—but revenge that is fully legalized and morally accepted.

And yet the president addressed an audience that had been conditioned to view revenge—no matter what form it took—as unbecoming of a great nation. "Shock and awe," for better or worse, sounds like the language of revenge, with those declarative vowels that easily collapse into a closed fist. These words don't evoke the tranquil inner sanctum of courtrooms were judgment is based on reason and deliberation and where punishment is neither random nor immediate. The president was forcing a distinction between justice and revenge that sounded presidential and diplomatic but in the moral universe didn't actually exist. He was speaking in code, feeding his constituents a familiar line, winking at the nation all the while. The assembled FBI agents, and the rest of America, for that matter, acted as if they were in denial—mindlessly clapping in favor of justice, signaling to the world that we were most assuredly not a vengeful nation. But in the chaos of post-9/11 hysteria, who could really tell the difference anyway?

When Osama bin Laden was finally assassinated by a team of Navy Seals that had infiltrated his Pakistani compound on May 1, 2011, many people in the United States pumped their fists in the air and even celebrated in the streets. Were they cheering the delivery of justice, or merely releasing the emotions associated with vengeance? Some criticized the celebrations as undignified, as if America were a nation of brutes with a bin Laden bloodlust. But just because they felt jubilation didn't make them very different from decent, fair-minded citizens who knew that justice was finally being done and bin Laden was receiving the payback he richly deserved.

Many, however, were left confused, not exactly sure how to feel. President Bush had promised that we would one day have our justice, and when it finally arrived it would most definitely not be in the form of revenge. We would take pride that we had forsaken our vengeful impulses in favor of the justice worthy of a great nation. Years later, however, a new president, Barack Obama, a former professor of constitutional law, was able to announce triumphantly that justice was, indeed, finally done—bin Laden had been judged and punished by a sharpshooting Navy Seal. Apparently a bullet to bin Laden's head was the justice we had all been waiting for. Nonetheless, most people experienced the assassination with all the emotion and exhilaration that generally accompanies revenge.

Others wondered how President Obama could possibly frame the killing of bin Laden in the language of justice when the terrorist wasn't captured and brought back to stand trial in the United States. Fifty American commandos overtook the compound, which was fortified only by bin Laden's wives and a teenage son, with little resistance. Surely he could have been abducted and tried in a civil courtroom as a criminal defendant (or as an enemy combatant before a military commission). Such a trial, any trial, would have displayed more of the attributes of justice than did the summary judgment that took place in Pakistan. And there still would have been cheers aft er a guilty verdict was announced, and that, too, would have seemed a lot like revenge.

Now a detour from the roving battlefields of counterterrorism to the gridiron of America's favorite sport.

National Football League (NFL) quarterback Brett Favre already had a Hall of Fame career with the Green Bay Packers when he retired from football in 2007, only to change his mind several months later. The problem was, the Packers didn't want him back. They had committed themselves to Aaron Rogers, Favre's backup, who several years later would lead them to another Super Bowl victory. It was Rogers's team now. Favre went on to sign with the New York Jets for one year, and then, after that season was over, retired once more only to change his mind, yet again. This time, however, rather than signing with a team from a different conference, Favre returned to the National Football Conference—to the very same division in which the Packers played—and joined their most dreaded rival, the Minnesota Vikings. As the newly installed Viking quarterback, Favre would have to play his old team at least twice during the 2009 NFL season.

Wearing the purple uniform of the Vikings before his first game against Green Bay's green and gold, Favre said the following in response to whether he was motivated by revenge: "No. That has nothing to do with it," but he soon added, "it's human nature to feel, I didn't use the word revenge, but to prove that you still could play. To prove someone wrong, ... So you can call it what you want."

Terry Bradshaw, himself a Hall of Fame quarterback, said on Fox's NFL Sunday, "Oh, really Brett? It's not about revenge? I'm sorry but no one believes that this time around." Another former NFL quarterback, Ron Jaworski, said on ESPN's coverage of the NFL, "Brett Favre is going to approach this game and he's going to be angry, he's going to be vindictive and he will come out smoking." And his partner on ESPN, former NFL coach Jon Gruden, said, "I can only imagine how Brett Favre is (feeling). He's going to be so excited to compete against the team that let him go. There's going to be a lot of emotions that go into this. Is it revenge? Whatever you want to call it, this is really going to be appealing."

At the end of the game, with the Vikings having won and with Favre having delivered one of the finest performances of his career, Jaworski was asked how he thought Favre was feeling at that moment: "I don't think he would admit it," he replied, "but I'm sure Brett is feeling that he finally got his revenge."

All this hemming and hawing and backpedaling from quarterbacks who are usually more nimble in dropping back to pass, and yet here, with so little on the line—unlike America's response to 9/11—they were so visibly clumsy, fearful to admit that there are scores to be settled that never show up on a scoreboard. There is pay dirt, which is part of the game, and there is payback, which can be just as important. What did these football TV analysts expect:

When it was time to finally face the team that cast him aside, Favre would have no special feelings about it, no incentive to prove the Packers wrong, that he would treat the game as any other on the Vikings' schedule?

Obviously, it's not just NFLquarterbacks. We are all, seemingly, invested—if not culturally programmed—in the self-denial of revenge. It's difficult if not impossible to have honest conversations about revenge. Retaliation must be reserved for more noble and lawful reasons than mere vengeance. And so we memorize the disclaimers and rehearse the verbal gymnastics. We want revenge but know not to ask for it. Instead, we demand justice, which we can safely say without appearing demented. The distinction between justice and revenge may actually be artificial, but it is undeniably everywhere.

Clara Schnorr's daughter was murdered outside of Chicago in 1985. After the man who killed her was sent to prison, Ms. Schnorr said, "There is no way that he can be punished enough for taking our Donna away from us. Yet we want justice, not revenge." Another grieving mother shared a similar view. In 2008, Hudson Post, from Nevada, was killed by a drunk driver who was sentenced to five years in prison but ended up released on house arrest after serving only three months. Post's mother, outraged by the lack of accountability for those who commit vehicular manslaughter, said, "It's the system that's the problem. It's not about revenge. It's about justice." In 2009, Ellen Harrington's son was murdered in Oakland when he refused to hand over his wallet during an armed robbery. Her son's murderer was sentenced to life imprisonment without parole. Ms. Harrington said, "I don't believe in vengeance.... But I'm glad that no other mother will have to go through this."

In these measured words spoken by anguished relatives lies a concession that justice is not to be taken privately through self-help—no matter how wounded or aggrieved the victims might be. The rule of law must prevail, and citizens will accept the verdicts that emanate from courts of law. But the very foundation of justice that is being invoked in these statements shares the same qualities of vindication that is found with revenge. In proclaiming that they seek justice and not revenge, these victims are speaking not to the formalism of legal trials but to the human longing for justified payback, in whichever way it is delivered, so long that it is delivered. For them, justice must produce the same levels of emotional satisfaction as revenge. It is for this reason that, for most people, justice is just revenge by another name.

Excerpted from PAYBACK by THANE ROSENBAUM. Copyright © 2013 by Thane Rosenbaum. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


1 Running away from Revenge
2 Just Deserts
3 The Emotions of Revenge
4 The Science of Mad
5 Why We Punish?
6 Other Cultures and Revenge
7 When Self-Help Is Permissible
8 Release Revenge

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