Revenge, Vengeance, & Justice

“Revenge is an act of passion; vengeance, of justice: injuries are revenged; crimes are avenged.”

-Samuel Johnson

“A hundred-year-old revenge still has its baby teeth.”

-Italian Proverb

“Revenge is a dish that should be eaten cold.”

-English Proverb

This blog will provoke more questions than it evokes answers to vexing questions. I don’t do this to toy with you. I do this intentionally because I want you to think critically about these very vague dilemmas that face the human existence and stand ready to torture the human soul. Not all of you will reach the same conclusions. Your path will be guided by your moral compass, and that instrument bears a true North that is dependent upon many human variables. 

Has anyone ever done something to you that has caused you embarrassment, anguish, or physical pain? Have you ever done something to someone that has caused them to experience these unpleasant emotions and feelings of physical torment? The simple answer to that is yes on both accounts. If you have not, I applaud you. You are a very unique individual. But if you are a mere mortal like the vast majority of us, you have stumbled over, and stumbled upon others as a flawed human being. 

The ideas of Samuel Johnson are a bedrock foundation of many justice systems, including the American system of criminal justice. As a civilized country, we have delegated that responsibility of righting wrongs done to us as individuals and by proxy as a society to the local, state, and federal legal officials. Rather than experiencing the wrath of blood feuds between warring clans, a “civilized” society has decided that formal systems of vengeance are the hallmark of a moral republic. 

It is here that a problem arises. What is justice, and how does it differ from revenge? Justice, loosely defined, is making a wrong right in a commensurate and moral manner. It is an act of vengeance. Often misquoted and misinterpreted, the Old Testament mantra of an Eye for an Eye is not centered on revenge. Rather, it is centered on vengeance that is commensurate with the wrong that was committed. The state, acting on behalf of the victim and the society that has been offended, uses legal mechanisms to determine guilt and mete out an appropriate punishment. In many cases, as mandated by the Old Testament, a life for a life is in order. 

Revenge is very personal. It is passionate. It is raw. It is primal. It is vicious. It may know no bounds, and it may not have a time stamp or a bottom. Revenge may, or may not, seek justice. That is dependent upon what the aims are of the person seeking revenge in conjunction with their moral code. 

If justice seeks to right a wrong, then a problem arises. What happens when the mechanism, i.e., the state and its legal machine, fail to meet its stated burden of providing justice for the injured party? There have literally been thousands of cases where violent rapists have escaped the punishment that would in fact fit the crime due to plea bargains. The rationale behind the plea agreement may have been to allow the offender to aid law enforcement with the prosecution of other cases. In some cases, plea agreements allow some level of punishment to be levied due to a lack of evidence that could prove disastrous in a criminal trial. In either case, the victim is devastated and scarred for life. Has justice been served? Has the punishment been fitted to the severity of the injury that the criminal visited upon their victim? 

Have you ever been assaulted? Has someone punched you in the face, breaking your teeth? Has someone injured you while attempting to steal your purse or your wallet? As is the case in some criminal proceedings, was the predator allowed to escape prison based on a plea agreement, or were they spared the pain of incarceration based on a lack of evidence? Did this make your broken teeth feel better? Did it return the valuables of your purse or wallet to you? Did it make you look at the world, and more particularly our society, as a place where good trumps evil? 

When vengeance fails, revenge becomes the mechanism of justice due to the basic nature of the human mind and heart. When the system that is meant to protect us rightly or wrongly is viewed alongside the monster that violated us in the first place, justice is sought elsewhere. Our society right now is broken. There is a growing distrust by millions of Americans aimed at state and federal governments due to a perceived trampling upon the civil liberties guaranteed to the individual by the Bill of Rights of the United States Constitution. Individually and collectively, whether this is right or wrong is a matter of worldview and moral cognizance. It is real though, and it must be accounted for. 

The world, and America as a neighbor of nations in the world, is experiencing uncertainty and sociopolitical upheaval that has been foisted upon it by many variables including Covid-19. There are millions of individuals that see the government at all levels as a tool of oppression, and thus injustice, due to restrictions placed on citizens in an effort to curb the potentially disastrous effects of the corona virus. The righteousness of these actions is a matter of your political and moral ideology. It reinforces the questions though that guide this discussion. What is justice? When does revenge become the only mechanism by which justice is guaranteed? What happens when those charged with seeking vengeance on our behalf become agents of injury, thus denying moral vengeance that defines us a moral society? 

Collectively, America is an interesting topic when it comes to the distinction between revenge and vengeance. Our history is replete with examples of how we have struck out at enemies that have attacked us in a myriad of ways. These retaliations have often been very swift in terms of time, and have been severe in their actions. The morality of the retaliation is not in question here. What must be examined in the light of revenge versus vengeance is the swiftness of the retaliation in accordance with the initial injury. Our policies have lacked patience, and they have lacked a long term understanding of our actions and their resulting consequences. 

Revenge is a dish best eaten cold. A hundred-year-old revenge still has its baby teeth. The American government does not live by these proverbs. If these age-old ideas regarding revenge and vengeance are considered to be with merit, then it must be questioned whether our foreign policy is guided by a sense of pragmatic justice or unbridled passion. Violence is violence. It causes pain, whether it is inflicted first or in retaliation. Violence also has consequences that can be devastating on individuals, communities, and societies. 

My instructor always admonished me to remind myself that a patient man is a dangerous man. A man that lashes out in anger is a fool. Yet, if the pragmatic man seeks justice on his own behalf, he is castigated as a vigilante in our alleged morally valiant republic.  Meanwhile, our leaders act in ways that are deemed to be criminal when the individual takes similar measures. 

Your ideas regarding revenge and vengeance are your own. Your ideas regarding justice served versus justice denied are your own. As you ponder these philosophical mysteries, consider the following questions. Does the retaliatory act ensure justice? Does the actor ensure justice? Or, is the combination of the actor and the retaliatory act the keystone in the determination of the attainment of justice? As Musashi would say, you must investigate this further.

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