Wednesday, April 23, 2008

the retributivist instinct?

the following paragraphs conclude jared diamond's recent essay, "vengeance is ours: what can tribal societies tell us about our need to get even?".  in it he implicitly and explicitly compares two stories-- the first of daniel, member of the handa clan in the new guinea highlands, who avenged the death of a beloved uncle at the cost of 'three years, twenty-nine more killings, and the sacrifice of three hundred pigs"-- the second of jozef, diamond's father-in-law, who lived a long life of ambivalent regret after giving up the chance to shoot the holocaust-era murderer of his mother and sister (who the polish state later set free).  

"we regularly ignore the fact that the thirst for vengeance is among the strongest of human emotions.  it ranks with love, anger, grief, and fear, about which we talk incessantly.  modern state societies permit and encourage us to express our love, anger, grief, and fear, but not our thirst for vengeance.  we grow up being taught that such feelings are primitive, something to be ashamed of and transcend.

there is no doubt that state acceptance of every individual's right to exact personal vengeance would miake it impossible for us to coexist peacefully as fellow-citizens of the same state.  wotherise, we, too, would be living under the conditions of constant warfare prevailing  in non-state societies like those of the new guinea highlnads.  in that sense, jozef was right to leave punishment of his mother's killer to the polish state, and it was tragic that the polish state failed him so shamefully.  yet, even if the killer had been properly punished, jozef would still have been deprived of the personal satisfaction that daniel enjoyed.

my conversations with daniel made me understand what we give up by leaving justice to the state.  in order to induce us to do so, state societies and their associated religions and moral codes teach us that seeking revenge is bad.  but, while acting on vengeful feelings clearly needs to be discourages, acknowledging them should be not merely permitted but encouraged.  to a close relative or friend of someone who has been killed or seriously wronged, and to the victims of harm themselves, those feelings are natural and powerful.  many state governments to attempt to grant the relatives  of crime victims some personal satisfaction, by allowing them to be present at the trial of the accused, and, in some cases, to address the judge or jury, or even to watch the execution of their loved one's murderer.

daniel concluded his story in the happy, satisfied, staightforward tone in which he had recounted the rest of it.  'now, when we visit an ombal village to play basketball, and isum comes to watch the game in his wheelchair, i feel sorry for him,' he said.  'occasionally, i go over to isum, shake his hand, and tell him, 'i feel sorry for you.'  but people see isum.  they know that he will be suffering all the rest of his life for having killed soll.  people remember that isum used to be a tall and handsome man, destined to be a future leader.  but so was my uncle soll.  by getting isum paralyzed, i gained appropriate revenge for the killing of my tall and handsome uncle, who had been very good to me, and who would have become a leader.'"

gripped as i am by the philosophical issues surrounding agency and retributivism, and admiring as i am of jared diamond's work, you might imagine the excitement i felt when this caught my eye as i skimmed the index page of this week's new yorker. i read it through once and felt terribly disappointed. i read it again and just felt discomfited-- although not, i think, in precisely the way that diamond surely intended this essay it discomfit us all.  but i might be giving myself too much credit here, so i've decided to sit with this one a little longer, to meditate and stew a little on the essay and my reaction to it.

anyway, it's a little unfair to just have you read the end, given that most of the rest of the essay does the important work of telling the full story of daniel, so that the western reader can't comfortably demonize or distance herself from him-- but i urge you to either take this for granted or, if you can't, to go read for yourself.  my discomfort does not arise from a sense that vengeance or it's taking is monstrous or primitive.

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