Unnecessary Vengeance

Davis Protest Paris

The recent execution of Troy Davis illustrate the American society has yet to move beyond "a fear-based view of crime and criminal justice," and "revenge-based logic," the author writes. Credit: Commons/World Coalition Against the Death Penalty.

As the nation and world viewed the unconscionable execution of Troy Davis on September 22, Americans were once again dragged through a profoundly painful morality play that left many of us bitter, ashamed, conflicted, polarized, and disillusioned once again at our inability to respond to the trauma of human suffering. This state-sponsored killing underscores the urgent need for us to rethink our ideas about revenge.

Calls for vengeance are understandable as people struggle to deal with the incredible hurt and shock of violence into the normalcy of their lives. This, in part, is what intrigues and troubles many of us as we search for some meaning and grapple with making sense out of a criminal and violent act or event.

Why did it happen? How did it happen? Could it happen again? It is the fear and mystery of an unknown danger that lurks or could be lurking in anything or anybody that can traumatize us and encourages us to take an aggressive posture toward life and all that surrounds us. Those who use the New York City subways are familiar with the electronic announcement that routinely and incessantly encourages riders to “say something if you see something.” Around-the-clock, fear-based media saturation of the recent Hurricane Irene—which indelibly tried to instill control of the population through often catastrophic visions of what Mother Nature had in store for us if we did not obey public safety and political authorities—was a variation of this social control/chaos theme.

It should not be surprising then that being put on this constant defensive alert can socialize people to see their world within a vengeful frame of reference that views punishment and moral retribution as a “natural” and necessary response that prevents and protects them from the unknown dangers surrounding them. If that fear-based worldview has somehow not prevented or deterred the violent crime or terrorist event, then many believe the criminal justice system needs to function as a necessary outlet for our “natural” and morally justified vengeful urges. If fear-based tactics have not been able to stop the cycle of violence, many argue that at least the hurt individual or community should have the right to have those emotions of hate and anger vented through a punishment system that appreciates and acts on those morally justified feelings.

This sort of revenge-based logic was particularly apparent in a recent New York Times op-ed piece by Thane Rosenbaum, a Fordham University law professor who resurrected a failed and outdated fear-based argument of vengeance and deterrence and tried to apply it to the July 22, 2011, terrorist attack in Norway.

The starting point of Rosenbaum’s argument is that Norway is now facing a great moral challenge in how it should respond to this event. The attack, carried out by a lone Norwegian man, was the deadliest act of domestic terrorism on Norwegian soil since World War II: he bombed a government center in Oslo, killing seven people there, and then went to an island summer camp about nineteen miles northwest of the city where he proceeded to kill at least eighty young members of the governing Labor Party.

Rosenbaum, a former fiction editor of Tikkun seems to have moved away from a spiritual progressive perspective. He argues that we should be more forthright, “proclaiming a moral duty to avenge, especially when the law fails and breaches its part of the social contract.” As a result of these supposed failures, “legal systems should punish the guilty commensurate with their crimes and recognize a moral duty to satisfy the needs of victims to feel avenged.”

Using language like “wickedness,” “monstrous atrocity,” “vengeful fury,” “the score remains unsettled,” and “getting even,” he argues that Norway is legally and morally unprepared to deal with this crime because their criminal justice system is not punitive and vengeful enough—not allowing for capital punishment and having a longest prison sentence of “only” twenty-one years for murder.

Disappointingly, he seeks to justify a nonlegal alternative—revenge—because of the “inadequacy of legal justice” and its “outright failure” in satisfying morally appropriate vengeful feelings which he depressingly argues are “as natural to the human species as love and sex.” He goes further by dismissing the differences between justice and vengeance (“how different is revenge from justice, really”) arguing that “every legal system, however dispassionate and procedural, must still pass the gut test of seeming morally just; and revenge must always be just and proportionate.”

Thane Rosenbaum

Thane Rosenbaum's New York Times op-ed reacted strongly to the July 2011 attacks in Norway and called for "a moral duty to avenge" the atrocities. Credit: Commons/Teacher'spet305.

Rosenbaum’s argument is flawed at a number of different levels. A fear-based view of crime and criminal justice does not and is not capable of understanding the cause of a violent act and is furthermore set up to mete out “moral” lessons of vengeance and punishment which are largely irrelevant to an understanding of those causes and the policies set up by a “liberal” social scientific paradigm designed to prevent them.

A fear-based, punitive perspective would contend that the prevention strategies of this more “lenient” and “rehabilitative” model have themselves led to an increase of violence and terror. Rooted in the idea that there is a strong link between the onset of criminality and the weakening of the ties that bind people to society, the fear-based approach maintains that a person is free to commit criminal acts without these social bonds. Thus, adherents of this approach argue, a strong state enforcement system and strict laws are needed to maintain whatever civilization humanity is able to muster in the face of the “natural” tendency of human nature to wreak havoc if undeterred by the possibilities of harsh consequences. Liberal and rehabilitative policies, they add, lessen these efforts by offering leniency and therapeutic reforms that further risk unleashing the furies of chaos and destruction.

There is an element of truth to this contention. Capital punishment can be seen as an ultimate deterrent by obviously making those executed incapable of committing further crimes. But each study that proves the deterrent effect of the death penalty can be matched by one that disproves it. Those who justify capital punishment rest their arguments on assumptions that every convicted murderer is likely to commit the act again if allowed and that the criminal justice system never convicts someone who is actually not guilty.

On both counts these assumptions are questionable. According to data from the Death Penalty Information Center between the years 1976, when the Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment, and 2009, 133 men and women sentenced to death were found to be innocent out of 1,163 executions taking place—or roughly one in nine. Of course, incapacitation is also available for those offenders sentenced to life without parole as an alternative to execution.

As it turns out, the Norwegian terrorist, Anders Breivik, was a white Christian neo-Nazi who feared a multicultural Europe and a Muslim takeover of Norway. The facts are that Muslims make up 3 percent of Norway, and Breivik seems to come from a growing fascist group in Europe who, like their traditional Nazi brethren had a distorted fear of immigrant groups, who they feel will threaten the unity and common values of the culture.

Social scientists have understood that for most of recorded history, most lethal violence is committed by men against other men and is often about the question or issues of their “manhood.” The particular form it takes with neo-Nazi groups involves their own feelings of shame, guilt, ridicule, disrespect, insecurity, and dependency, which are rooted within a specific historical context and political/cultural base. These “forms” often structurally manifest themselves in racism and a militaristic and fear-based worldview.

A memorial for victims of the July attacks in Utøya. Norway's response to the attacks had little to do with revenge or "proportionate" punishment, as "calls for vengeance are irrelevant in a society whose success is built on genuine care, compassion, and concern for its citizens," the author argues. Credit: CC/oriolsalvador.

Limited by our ways of thinking, societal responses have largely been focused on a reactive punishing of violent offenders. This distorted “moral” value system cannot solve the underlying motivational, psychological, sociological, economic, and spiritual structure that give rise to such feelings. Furthermore, a hard-line punitive perspective that calls for vengeance further dehumanizes and demeans all who participate in the process and has as its main consequence the continuation of a cycle of violence, fear and mistrust.

Consider the war on drugs, which since the early Seventies has resulted in what Michelle Alexander has called a new Jim Crow of mass incarceration that has decimated black and Latino inner-city communities and has not resulted in a reduction of drug use. The cycle of violence and abuse continues unabated in the face of Draconian sentencing practices that have put one in every nine young African-American men in prison, and in some communities, one in three. In the face of these failures and destruction of lives and communities, an alternative narrative needs to be developed and supported.

There are enormous differential rates of individual and collective violence between societies around the world backed up by extensive empirical data showing that every other democracy and every other economically developed nation on earth has less violence than the United States. This demonstrates that violence can be understood and prevented, at least to a considerable extent. Political and economic policies that encourage care and concern for one’s fellow citizen can be found in those governments that seem to be open to programs of compassion, love, and the healing process that now is underway in Norway.

We need to specify the conditions or variables that can enable love and caring to grow without it being inhibited by feelings of shame or guilt. The conditions that are most important in giving rise to shame or guilt are relative poverty, race and age discrimination, sexual asymmetry, and distorted spiritual values such as cynical realism.  An acceptance of the ideology of capitalism and in particular its belief in a meritocracy that people then internalize in the form of self-blame becomes a continuing problem. If we approach fear and violence as a problem of public health, preventive medicine, and distorted spiritual values, our agenda is political, economic, and spiritual reform. Cynical realism or fatalism toward a never-ending war of all against all and beliefs in the intractability of a destructive human nature give way to a belief in the positive potential of the human experience and a belief in the beauty and sanctity of all individuals and communities.

The social policies that would be most effective in preventing violence are those that reduce the amount of shame and guilt associated with these conditions. These same social policies and values would also be able to heal and nurture those who have been devastated by the cruel events of the past few weeks in Norway. That is exactly what is happening in Norway as it rejects the calls for vengeful feelings.

Norway’s low levels of terror and violence generally have much more to do with the enlightened level of its economic, political, and educated civic society. It is known internationally for its low rates of violent crime. There were twenty-nine murders in a country of 4.6 million in 2009, the last date for which official statistics were available. Only sixty out of every 100,000 citizens are incarcerated in Norway compared to 700 in the United States and less than 10 percent of felonies are violent offenses. The murder rate is 1.99 per 100,000 compared to the United States’ 8.4; rape rate is 7.87 per 100,000 compared to the States’ 37.2; armed robbery twenty-two per 100,000 vs. 221 for the United States; and 661 people per police officer for Norway vs. 459 for the United States. Norway’s prisoner recidivism rate is around 20 percent, much lower than the typical 60 percent and 70 percent rate in the United States. Furthermore, over 50 percent of all criminal offenses are traffic related!

Calls for vengeance are irrelevant in a society whose success is built on genuine care, compassion, and concern for its citizens. Politicians such as the mayor of Oslo and the overwhelming majority of Norwegian people have declared that the country and its people have the moral fiber and support systems to sustain and heal the bereaved families, their communities, and the larger “soul” of Norway.

Oslo Memorial

A memorial in downtown Olso for the victims of the July attacks. The author writes that Norway's response to the massacres demonstrates "the Norwegian ethos of self-reflection, economic and social equality, and benevolence toward its people." Credit: CC/kbakk1.

On August 19, 2011, as part of the grieving process, about 500 relatives of the victims traveled to the site of the massacre for the first time and with candles and flowers and the aid of police, clergy members and counselors walked through their loved one’s last moments. One of the relatives, Unni Espeland Marcussen, said the family needed to see where their sixteen-year-old daughter Andrine’s life had ended. “We get to see the place where Andrine was last, the houses she was in, the paths she walked and the place she died,” Ms. Marcussen said.

In the Troy Davis case, it has become obvious that America’s criminal justice system is incapable of rooting out the arbitrary nature of the death penalty sentence—its application is still grounded in the racism, classism, and politics that permeate every segment of American life. As a black man growing up in America, Davis faced a higher risk of the death penalty; his execution becomes part of a statistic showing that two-thirds of all those sentenced to death since 1976 have been in five Southern states. Study after study in the last several decades have pointed to the fact that race plays a critical role in black men being executed disproportionally more than white men who are accused of committing the same crimes.

Furthermore, there is a strong case suggesting Davis was innocent. Seven out of nine witnesses in his trial recanted their testimony, citing police intimidation, and jurors publicly repudiated their opinions. For a fuller discussion of why so many think Davis was innocent, it’s worth reading “Troy Davis: Is Georgia Going to Execute an Innocent Man” from The Week and Dave Zirin’s blog post “Today, Georgia Murders Troy Davis” from the Nation website.

Troy Davis's sister, Martina Correira speaks at a demonstration. The continued use of the death penalty in the U.S. "is still grounded in the racism, classism, and politics that permeate every segment of American life," the author writes. Credit: Commons/World Coalition Against the Death Penalty.

In the face of these accounts and strikingly disparate levels of crime and violence between the two countries, Rosenbaum’s primeval call for revenge and vengeance in the Norwegian tragedy becomes preposterous and should become part of the scrapheap of a dysfunctional moral history.

Even though everyone is quite certain that Breivik committed the crime with which he was charged (unlike in Troy Davis’s case), it is inconceivable that Norway would seriously consider a response to Anders Breivik’s crime equivalent to Georgia’s execution of Troy Davis—and not just because Breivik is white.

Norway would never consider the death penalty because it has found an alternative vision that provides and serves its people well—one that retains and enhances their humanity. The United States would do well to examine and incorporate more of the Norwegian ethos of self-reflection, economic and social equality, and benevolence toward its people if we truly want a more safe and humane society. Calls for so-called “morally appropriate vengeful feelings and policies” only obfuscate the issues of crime, violence, and terror, and empirically are shown to be counterproductive and unnecessary.

James S. Vrettos has taught sociology, criminology, and criminal justice at John Jay College–City University of New York for twenty years. He coauthored the critically acclaimed text The Elementary Forms of Statistical Reason and has facilitated New York City's Tikkun Community organizing group. Professor James Vrettos was involved in an Oct. 21, 2011, Harlem civil disobedience action and subsequent trial protesting stop-and-frisk polices.
tags: Justice & Prisons, US Politics   
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