Revenge has always had a bad press in a world where conformists are actively scheming to make a virtue out of a vice. But, it is not hard to see that deep down, they love what they claim to despise.
Crowds throng to the theaters to watch movies in which the hero stands victorious at the end, blood and sweat running down his chest. When S.P.S. Rathore got away with a measly fine and six months imprisonment after molesting a girl, ruining her family and driving her to suicide, Sagarika Ghose tweeted: “My daughter is almost 14. If I was Ruchika’s mother, I would have gone and broken Rathore’s jaw.”Above a picture in which Rathore was grinning widely saying “I am relieved today”, Sandipan Deb wrote: “Remember that face.” Revenge sells in a market where people consume what gives them joy, and not what is supposed to give them joy. The tycoons of the entertainment industry know it. Our journalists know it.
On an abstract level, however, revenge makes most people uncomfortable. Alan Greenspan once wondered about a person who finds unrelenting justice personally disturbing. I know what it means, because I have lived with this concept for much of my life. When I was a ten-year-old boy, my mother found it disturbing that I often prayed for the early demise of my class teacher. But, my childhood dream came true only when over a decade later, in an Orkut forum, I read that Sister Rosalind was taken to the graveyard in a beautiful coffin.
My mother is not an exception. Almost everyone think that on the scale of morality, revenge has a lower status. Mother Teresa’s and Dalai Lama’s of the world would be hooted off the stage if they preach revenge. But then, like Ellsworth Toohey, they play the stock market of the spirit.
There was, however, a very young man who could instantly convince many religious-minded Indians that revenge is not a petty vice, but something to be celebrated—Ajmal Kasab.
On 21st of November, he was hanged.
Today, a libertarian friend said that it is ironic that Bal Thackeray got a state funeral when Ajmal Kasab had to be content with the rope. But, the political correctness of the left never had any meaningful effect on the masses. The government does not consider people of so-called-intelligence a menace. But, the government knows that people who are not-so-intelligent are dangerous. A demagogue who appeals to men who resent their betters has always had more followers than someone who spouts empty slogans. It is true in the United States. It is true in India. Such is human nature.
Many dim journalists parrot that Kasab’s hanging does not serve any purpose because: 1) Death was exactly what Kasab had wished 2) It does not deter anyone, because a Jihadist comes to die. Are these notions true? Are these notions even plausible? Let me see.
The death penalty does not deter anyone, because a Jihadist comes to die.
Perhaps it is true that sending a Jihadi to the gallows would not deter other Jihadi. But, this is irrelevant. The fact that the state has such powers waiting to be used would deter many terrorists who expect to get away. The possibility of being sent to the gallows would certainly deter many non-terrorists who would otherwise have committed heinous acts.
It was long clear to economists that executions deter criminals, and that the effect is far more than most people imagine. Four decades back, Isiah Ehrlich had estimated that from 1935-1969, one additional execution per year would have prevented around 8 murders a year.
What is wrong with death penalty, anyway? Why is it wrong to murder a criminal if it can prevent the murder of many innocents? Why do the hearts of little people bleed for criminals, and not for their victims?
It might be argued that the judiciary can err. But, wouldn’t that prove far too much? That would be an argument against punishment in general, and not an argument against capital punishment as such. Capital punishment is perhaps cruel, but isn’t that the whole point? As an affectionate mother tells her son, “I do not punish you for my salvation.”
Now, it is true that executions are very rare in our country. But, criminals are rarely trained statisticians. They do not rely on the probability scale. When the public celebrates the execution of terrorists like Kasab with trumpets, it is very unlikely to be forgotten. Even articles like this are likely to be a deterrent. And there can be no stronger deterrent than our sentimentalists. It is they who often bring the issue to the forefront, campaigning against capital punishment. The public memory is very short.
Kasab wanted death
Perhaps. I gathered that Ajmal Kasab was very proud of what he did. He was very cool about it even after the President had rejected his mercy petition. But, if Kasab had held his Jihadist beliefs consistently, his last words would not have been, “I swear by Allah, please forgive me, such a mistake won’t be repeated”. Kasab had exhausted all the possible legitimate options to escape the death penalty. If Kasab could get away with what he had done, it is quite probable that he would have chosen that. If it were indeed true that Kasab preferred death, sending him to the gallows would still have been sensible—if for no purpose other than to get him off the backs of innocent tax payers.
The moral status of revenge
If you debate the ethical aspects of revenge with someone, you will almost certainly hear worn-out bromides like:
“Forgiveness is a virtue.”, “An eye for an eye will make the whole world blind.”, “The great Mahatma Gandhi once said that only the strong can forgive. The weak cannot forgive.”, “But, do you want to be one among those little people who had harmed you?”, “After all, what purpose does revenge serve?”
If you are debating a girl, however, it is easy to drive her into defending positions she would not want to defend. Ask her whether she would preach forgiveness to a rape victim, and ask her to forget and move on. Now, is it fair to compare molestation or rape to murder or similar acts of brutal violence? I think not. I think molestation and rape are acts of milder physical violation. Wouldn’t the victim suffer from life-long shame and guilt? But, when you grant legitimacy to those feelings, isn’t that a slander on those innocent women? What now?
Why do the same people who love revenge in movies, love forgiveness on a high, philosophical level? For a moral code to be accepted by the society, it should help our little people feel good. It should at least help them feel that the road to moral perfection is open only to a saint or a Zen Buddhist. It should allow them to say: “I think it very difficult for a man to be moral.”, and go on with their lives, doing the petty things they have always done.
It is not surprising that forgiveness is considered a virtue.
But, is revenge easier, as the booboisie claims?
What if the families of Aarushi Talwar, Jessica Lal or Ruchika Girhotra had decided not to fight the battle, and moved on, enjoying the little pleasures in life? What then? Would our moralists who prate that forgiveness is an attribute of the strong respect them for their strength and courage?
We live in a world where pursuing justice is very costly—a world where being even is very costly. Most men would not even attempt to fight when they face such a battle. It is far easier to cheer the death of a terrorist in social networking websites. It is an expression of immense courage, especially when your enemy is powerful. It is a virtue to right the scales.
If you have the right to pursue justice through the government, by the same code of morality, you are even more justified in pursuing revenge yourself. The government, after all, is nothing but a bunch of robbers.
Would revenge bring you happiness?
Many believe that forgiveness brings happiness. Does it? I think not. I find such claims ridiculous.
Bryan Caplan puts it eloquently:
“I’m willing to believe that forgiving makes people happier than nursing grudges. But I also think it is very likely that – contrary to all platitudes – revenge is a surer and quicker path to the recovery of happiness than forgiveness.
In evolutionary terms, revenge serves the clear function of deterring future offenses against you and your family. Not feeling good about getting payback from those who’ve done you wrong just doesn’t seem evolutionarily stable.
And introspectively, revenge gives closure. Every time you remember the wrong done to you, you’ll also call to mind the way you balanced the scales. One of my happiest childhood memories involves a sneak attack with my lunchbox on a kindergarten bully. The pain of the bullying is long since forgotten, but the joy of righting the scales of the schoolyard is still with me.”
What purpose does revenge serve?
If our moralists did not know that revenge is a pleasure, they would have called it sacrifice. They would have considered it a selfless service to the society. The fact that they do not do it is enough proof that they know the joy of righting the scales.
There is no earthly reason why the prospects of retaliation would not act as a deterrent. The “cost-benefit analysis” arguments against revenge, however, leaves much to be desired. To me, delivering justice is definitely a public good, because irrespective of the gains to the victim, it leaves incalculable benefits to the “society”. Why should we always lean on the yardstick of money-grubber ethics?