Revenge might have been an understandable motivation when William Petit sought a death sentence for one of two men who raped and strangled his wife, sexually assaulted his daughters and then set fire to their Connecticut house with both daughters tied to their beds. Yet after the jury’s verdict, Petit said he wanted only justice for his murdered family. So, too, did President Obama avoid any reference to vengeance — while invoking justice five times — when he announced that Navy SEALs had killed Osama bin Laden in a May 2011 raid in Pakistan.
The omissions weren’t surprising, argues Thane Rosenbaum in his well-written new book, “Payback: The Case for Revenge.” No matter how heinous the crime or how evil the perpetrator, he says, the idea of vengeance makes Americans “squeamish and intellectually dishonest.”
(Univ. of Chicago Press) - ’Payback: The Case for Revenge’ by Thane Rosenbaum
Rosenbaum, a Fordham University law professor and a novelist, exaggerates only slightly when he writes that “it’s more acceptable to confess to having a kinky taste for porn than to acknowledge harboring feelings of revenge.” Anyone openly seeking vengeance is unfairly dismissed in the legal system as irrational, unreliable and somewhat unhinged. Rosenbaum convincingly argues for knocking down the false distinction between justice and revenge, for rescuing revenge from its taboo status.
It is a well-entrenched distinction, including on The Washington Post’s opinion page, where recently two writers, in the span of one week, argued that executing the mentally ill James Holmes, who is accused of shooting 12 people to death at a midnight showing of a Batman movie last year in Colorado, would amount to vengeance rather than justice.
Rosenbaum shows how justice is inextricably linked to revenge, which he argues is both “morally right” and a “deeply internalized” instinct “as innate to man as breathing, having sex, falling in love, and making war.” He writes: “There is no justice if wrongdoers go unpunished and victims do not feel avenged.” Lacking an outlet in the justice system, we look to popular culture for what Rosenbaum calls the “moral clarity” that vengeance provides. He sprinkles the book with references to films and television shows, from “The Godfather” and “The West Wing” to “I Know What You Did Last Summer” and “The Mentalist.” He proves he’s watched an impressive range of TV shows and movies in the decades since he left his job as a law firm associate to write fiction and study how popular culture depicts the legal system.
But his mixing of nonfictional and fictional examples can be jarring. On a single page, he jumps from Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds” to the case of an Iranian university student facing a state-imposed blinding for throwing acid into the eyes of a classmate who spurned his romantic advances. Real and fake perpetrators and victims commingle in a ripped-from-the-headlines world.
A recurring theme in Rosenbaum’s work is the legal system’s moral inadequacies, and he picks up here where he left off in his 2004 book, “The Myth of Moral Justice,” renewing his argument that the legal system needs to stop ignoring emotional grievances. He laments how the human dimension of disputes gets “shredded away” in courtrooms that he describes as “monasteries of lifeless, deadened emotion.” At best, vengeance sneaks into the courthouse through the back door in the form of victim impact statements or the death penalty.