Revenge's bad rap: deserved or not?
“America needs to relearn a lost discipline, self-confident relentlessness—and to relearn why human nature has equipped us all with a weapon (abhorred in decent peacetime societies) called hatred.”
— Lance Morrow in The Case for Rage and Retribution
Revenge has acquired a bad reputation as a negative emotion that does more harm than good. We're told to forgive and forget, or to let the local prosecutor do the dirty work for us when things get really bad, such as when my father was murdered. Although I have a doctorate degree and have studied psychology and behavior for decades, one of my relatives (I'll call him Dave) without a degree recently taught me an important lesson about revenge.
Dave told me about one of the young punks in his area who would often drive by his home at a dangerously excessive speed well above the posted limit. Dave worried that one of his kids would be hit and killed by SpeedRacer, age 17 or so, who evidently was not deterred by the prospect of a speeding ticket or even a manslaughter charge. Videotaping SpeedRacer's racing also did nothing.
Like most parents, Dave loves his kids, but he did something that most parents would not do. Dave stopped SpeedRacer one day and told him that if he ever hit one of his kids, he'd better hope that the police got to him before he did, because he would literally tear him apart. What I haven't yet mentioned is that Dave is large, strong, and physically imposing. He once crushed the rib cage of someone by giving him a play bear hug. If Dave were enraged, I have no doubt that the scrawny SpeedRacer would be turned into mincemeat without using any of the firearms in Dave's extensive gun collection. Dave would never start a fight, but given sufficient provocation (such as seeing his son splattered on SpeedRacer's hood), well, heaven help you.
“Don't mistake my kindness for weakness. I am kind to everyone, but when someone is unkind to me, weak is not what you are going to remember about me.”
— Al Capone
Dave's threat did what the police and umpteen laws could not accomplish: SpeedRacer stopped speeding, at least around Dave's home. I think that parents have an ethical obligation to safeguard their children as much as possible, and most parents would probably agree with me … yet I can't imagine most parents going as far as Dave did. That's too bad.
Avenging rapes and more
If fathers could avenge the rapes of their daughters, rapes would surely plummet. By protecting rapists from revenge, we're putting women at risk. Rapists in America are shielded by its Constitution prohibiting cruel and unusual punishments, but considering the cruel and unusual nature of rape, women are not given the same protection. Oh, sure, we prosecute and imprison a fraction of rapists, but judging by the perennial prevalence of rape, existing laws have insufficient deterrent value.
Thus we're bound to have cruel and unusual treatment; the only question is who will be subjected to it: women or rapists. I vote the latter, which gives potential rapists the freedom to avoid draconian punishments. Women who are raped aren't given a choice.
The constitutional provision against cruel and unusual punishments prohibits innovation we dearly need to protect law-abiding citizens and criminals.
Criminals? Yes, them, too. By relying on punishments that clearly lack sufficient deterrent value, our system tempts too many people into choosing the wrong path through life. As their lives are ruined as they rot in prison watching cable TV and enjoying free food and medical care, the lives of their victims can be indelibly shattered in more horrific ways, with no parole hearings that prematurely end the suffering. As I dug twigs, bark, leaves, and other forest debris rammed into the vagina and rectum of a patient by her rapist, I knew her suffering would never end even if the knife marks on her neck didn't leave scars and her fiancé didn't leave her, as she feared while sobbing softly, too depressed to fully vent.
The irony is that in striving to be a civilized society, we've given incivility the upper hand. That hand too often clenches into a fist that threatens even the ones lucky enough to not be victims because they never know when they might be the next one to be raped, robbed, or murdered, as my father was by thugs who shattered his skull so they could steal his truck after dumping his body in a swamp.
Albert Einstein defined insanity as “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” Based on that definition, our leaders are insane for thinking their punishments adequately protect us. Obviously not.
In my earlier career as an ER doctor, I witnessed how crime is more prevalent than we think. Let's begin with what some people might perceive as a minor example: a beautiful 17-year-old woman with her head usually buried in her hands—a psychological defense against a cruel reality: that her first sexual experience with a man left her with three sexually transmitted diseases, one incurable. He knew what he had, and he didn't care if he gave it to her. That's a crime.
Now let's consider a major example: rapes that often go unrecognized because they occur in the back of an ambulance, committed by perverted paramedics who take advantage of unconscious women. Another example is twisted paramedics intentionally killing black patients because they are black.
I wrote about both types of crime years ago and received zero response. I condensed the info and posted it on LinkedIn (following the advice of LinkedIn's executive editor Daniel Roth to go where the readers are), receiving a very tepid response. Puzzled about why more people weren't incensed by those outrages, my girlfriend, a psychologist, said people don't care about things that don't affect them, or they assume won't affect them.
I get it but I don't. Half the population is female, and whether you're Melinda Gates or Tammy from Topeka, you never know when you might end up in an ambulance, and you can't use Angie's List to select who treats you—or who treats themselves.
Nor can anyone know when they might be the next victim of any crime. One of my patients stopped at a traffic light outside the hospital when a pedestrian walked over and shot through his window. No prior road rage or any interaction; nothing to explain it except perhaps jealousy the victim had a nice car and the shooter had nothing but rage.
In speaking with umpteen criminals in the ER, I learned they had little fear of our criminal justice system, but they did have fear that could control their behavior.
Let's step back in time and join me in the ER as I tired of hearing a man loudly scream profanity for hours, causing babies to cry, women to wince, and elderly folks to shake their heads in disgust. I'd tried all the usual tactics to pacify him, and even some unusual ones, such as offering to buy him a pizza.
Nothing worked. He kept screaming profanity because, as he explained it, he enjoyed inflicting pain on others. He was a sociopath, and this was a game to him—one he felt destined to win.
He was wrong. I approached him and whispered something in his ear he will never forget. He shut up and was a perfect angel the remainder of his ER visit.
I've had similar cases, all with one common denominator: people who could not be controlled by the usual responses could indeed be controlled by unusual ones, leading me to conclude that the key to controlling criminal and antisocial behavior is to not play the game by their rules. Instead of limiting responses to ones they don't dread, make them shake in their boots so law-abiding citizens don't have to.