Friday, April 25, 2008

Vengeance Is Ours


In the current New Yorker, anthropologist Jared Diamond, author of Guns, Germs, and Steel and Collapse, examines the vengeance practices of tribal societies in New Guinea. According to one of the tribesman, "The original cause of the wars between the Handa and Ombal clans (which have spanned 4 decades) was a pig that ruined a garden." I couldn't help but place this battle in the context of Just War Theory and wonder whether this would qualify as a "Just Cause."

It is easy to dismiss these causes and ongoing wars as a by-product of a primitive society in which war, murder, and demonization of one's enemies are the norm. Yet, while we may comfort ourselves in believing our modern nation states are more civilized, Diamond reminds us that these tendencies are still alive and well today. He writes:

In times of war, even modern state societies quickly turn the enemy into a dehumanized figure of hatred, only to enjoin us to stop hating again as soon as a peace treaty is signed. Such contradictions confuse us deeply. Neither pacific ideals nor wartime hatreds, once acquired, are easily jettisoned. It’s no wonder that many soldiers who kill suffer post-traumatic stress disorder. When they come home, far from boasting about killing, as a Nipa tribesman would, they have nightmares and never talk about it at all, unless to other veterans.

What I found most fascinating about the article was that the tribes seem to follow an ethical code during warfare - something akin to a discrimination principle.

On one occasion, I asked Daniel whether there are any rules that limit how one may kill enemies. He said, “In a night raid in which we sneak into an enemy village and surround the hut of a targeted enemy individual, we can tear down the hut to force the enemy to come out so that we can kill him. But it’s not acceptable to set fire to the hut and burn him to death.” I then asked, “Is it acceptable for six of you surrounding a hut to attack and kill a single outnumbered enemy?” Daniel answered, “Yes, that’s considered fair, because it’s already extremely dangerous for us to penetrate enemy territory, where we are greatly outnumbered.

The two examples set up a contradictory notion of respect. On the one hand, killing your enemy without facing him is cowardly and shows little respect for the enemy. On the other hand, death-squad style killing, of a seemingly non-personal nature, is considered permissible due to the inherent danger a group assumes in penetrating enemy lines!? A strange ethical code indeed. Unless, of course, the mode of execution is viewed through the lens of revenge. Warfare in the eyes of Handa and Ombal is an ongoing battle of revenge, not just between tribes but internally with themselves. Modes of killing become secondary to the proper identification of the killer by the victim. The need to relieve feelings of vengeance is the primary motivation for violence. Without a doubt, this perpetuates a never-ending cycle of violence - feelings of vengeance are simply pushed onto someone else.

In our modern nation state, we deed over our individual right to exact personal vengeance to the state. This, in turn, theoretically reduces the amount of violence between individuals. But how do we relieve our feelings of vengeance when we are wronged? When a loved one is killed? When you are a victim of a crime? It is not until the moment of victimization that we realize that our right to revenge has been handed over to the state. At this point, we immediately want it back. For the greater good, however, we can't have it back. Nevetheless, our feelings remain. As Diamond points out:

My conversations with Daniel made me understand what we have given 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 discouraged, 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

The only question left is: What do we do with them?

2 comments:

aev said...

we express them. perhaps counseling isn't so unnecessary after all.

and a pig ruining a garden? a just war, any day of the week.

jfinnell said...

Agreed. Counseling is an excellent way to express and acknowledge those feelings. However, the state doesn't provide this service for those who can't afford it. The role of creating a peaceful state is left half-done. If you take away the right to revenge a wrong, you must provide compensation (counseling) for the expression and relief of the feelings attached to it. Religious groups fulfill that function for free.