But “Payback” has little of the emotional element that Rosenbaum finds lacking in the legal system. Revenge, after all, is personal, and this detached account relies mostly on movie plots and newspaper headlines. Readers might pair this book with “Revenge: A Story of Hope,” former Post reporter Laura Blumenfeld’s 2002 account of tracking down the terrorist who shot her father in the head in Jerusalem’s Old City.
Rosenbaum acknowledges the limits of revenge, which won’t necessarily bring closure, catharsis or happiness, and like other forms of pleasure or addiction, vengeance can harm those who seek it. Rosenbaum ably demonstrated that in his novel “Second Hand Smoke,” which tells the story of a concentration camp victim’s son turned Justice Department Nazi prosecutor whose all-consuming quest for revenge ruins his marriage and career.
(Univ. of Chicago Press) - ’Payback: The Case for Revenge’ by Thane Rosenbaum
Rosenbaum doesn’t want to go as far as the societies he catalogues in which citizens who couldn’t rely on the legal system turned to revenge to keep the peace. (A Sicilian technique called “goating” involved binding a wrongdoer’s feet to a rope before placing him in the trunk of a car. If the wrongdoer moved, he strangled himself.) Instead, the author would infuse criminal proceedings with the emotional experience of vengeance by giving victims ways to participate more fully rather than watch as passive bystanders. Victims, he says, might be allowed to veto plea bargains, conduct their own cross-examinations during trials or have an independent right to appeal sentences they think are too lenient. At the most extreme, Rosenbaum argues in favor of “revenge statutes” that would provide “the righteous avenger” the same kind of protection as people who engage in self-defense.
Rosenbaum acknowledges these changes aren’t “easily attainable,” given how they would undermine the power of prosecutors and defense attorneys. Judges would have to overcome their “near-pathological aversion” to emotion. Curbing plea bargains would mean more trials, a change that would require more judges and courthouses.
At a time when federal judges are warning that automatic spending cuts may require closing courts, delaying trials and furloughing public defenders, the likelihood of finding funding for any kind of expensive changes to the criminal justice system seems more unrealistic than the most far-fetched movies Rosenbaum likes to watch.
, an editor at Bloomberg BNA, is a co-author of “Justice Brennan: Liberal Champion.”