Payback: The Case for Revenge

Payback: The Case for Revenge

Thane Rosenbaum

Language: English

Pages: 328

ISBN: 0226726614

Format: PDF / Kindle (mobi) / ePub


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.

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provoked by the victim of the crime, who may have been a wrongdoer of another sort. The term of art “heat of passion,” and the way it mitigates premeditated murder to a lesser crime, represents a tacit acknowledgment that emotions that motivate crimes are of a far less detestable nature than crimes that emanate out of wickedness and bad intention.83 Emotion is the essence of human nature, something that all human beings share. Depravity, by contrast, is special and more rare, possessed by human

prosecutors engage in the cynical sport of trading down on the punishment that is otherwise deserved. The negotiations all take place in secret, beyond the reach of victims and galaxies away from the general public. There is hardly any accountability—to the victim or the public. And prosecutors are not required to explain publically how the rule of law can be so subverted. The bargain-basement punishments that hardcore criminals receive every day simply cannot be reconciled with the strict laws

inverse relationship between injustice under the law and the abundance of revenge novels, plays, and films that spring from the imagination of artists. If the legal system didn’t treat emotion as contraband, if it better appreciated the human need to feel avenged, vengeance wouldn’t have become such a staple of our common culture. Our revenge cravings become ravenous whenever justice is left undone. These very same emotions are quarantined from courtrooms, a consequence of the state’s monopoly

Bonasera, the undertaker—making distinctions among attempted rape, assault, and premeditated murder. Who knew the Cosa Nostra was so meticulous about punishment? The Godfather could have simply given Bonasera what he wished for: an old-fashioned Mafia death sentence for the boys who assaulted his daughter. Instead, he went to the trouble of fashioning an appropriate remedy. “We’re not murderers,” the Godfather proclaims. He didn’t say: “Hey, I’m the Godfather. I kill for a living. I can’t refuse

Indeed, Bonasera is not the first father who was faced with this moral dilemma. Biblical forefathers had daughters, too, and the Old Testament has its version of loutish, roguish street thugs who tried to take advantage of young women. In fact, all modern narratives about rape, a father’s anguish, and what should be done about it, have their origins in the rape of Dinah from the book of Genesis.3 These questions arose from the very beginning; the proper punishment owed to the rapist has always

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