In last week’s post, I wondered what would make someone do something as hateful as the Boston Bombing. A reader commented that it doesn’t matter why, that the most important thing is to kill those responsible. Well, we’re halfway to that solution, but it got me thinking about forgiveness and empathy and the limits of revenge. (Note to my commenter, I think you were thinking more in terms of deterrence, but it got me thinking about revenge anyway.)
To me, the problem with revenge is that it presumes a shared humanity with the perpetrator that may not exist, while ignoring the shared humanity that should make us want to be better than they are.
Empathy is the golden ingredient that keeps one person from causing deliberate harm to innocent people. Someone with empathy could not set off a bomb intended to harm and grievously injure the innocent because they would be able to empathize with the pain that such a thing would cause for the victims and their families.
Revenge is an inversion of empathy. We imagine that if we can exact something on the perpetrator that would hurt us then we will have somehow exacted a just price for their crimes and the losses they caused. But, the problem is that for this to work, the perpetrator has to be playing with the same moral and emotional deck that we’re playing with – you can’t hurt someone who doesn’t feel pain, so the thing that hurts us, would not hurt them.
That to me, is one flaw with revenge – if the person had the capacity to feel the pain you’re trying to inflict you wouldn’t need to inflict it because they would not have inflicted it themselves. The other problem with revenge is that all the while you’re trying to hurt this other person, you have just turned in to someone who tries to hurt other people.
I understand the impulse. I have had a few revenge fantasies in my time. It’s very satisfying to imagine the pain of someone who has caused you pain, but it’s like junk food – once the initial rush has passed, you just feel empty because you haven’t fixed anything and now you’re someone who got some enjoyment out of hurting. Killing Tamarlan didn’t bring back that little boy.
There’s also the question of deterrence; that if we are harsh with these people we’ll show others that they had better not mess with us. Again I think this presumes a shared consciousness that’s not always present. The Boston bombers did seem to have some sense of self-preservation, but in many cases, the perpetrators don’t care whether they live or die because they want to martyr themselves in service of their crazy cause.
Adam Lanza. Jason Kleibold. The Green River Killer. The Tsarnaev brothers. They all did horrible things, but I can’t help but think that living inside their heads was a horrible experience too. This doesn’t mean they are excused, ever. Forgiveness doesn’t mean inviting further abuse or letting hateful or cruel or criminal people ever do harm again. It’s more about wishing for the world at large to have less anger not more, even if that means giving up some of your own.