Opinion | Let’s Get American Revenge

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décembre 27, 2022

In this season of gratitude and goodwill, we’re greeted with headlines reporting revenge travel, revenge dressing, revenge impeachments and revenge of presidential proportions in the 2024 campaign of Donald Trump. But are Americans avengers?

The answer was simple once. Yes, we dreamed of revenge, cheered it at theaters and sports arenas, secretly wished it upon bosses and double-crossers. We prayed revenge would right family slights and false friends. Yet we respected the line between fantasy and action. Our society demanded it. Vengeance was considered uncivilized, unethical, an act of ugly self-destruction. We denied the need to get even.

In recent years though, we’ve seen a surge in vindictive behavior. Judges, journalists, politicians and their families have been targeted with violent reprisals. Online encounters trend spiteful, with TikTok and Bumble fighting the spread of revenge porn. Corporate culture plays like a mud-pit production of “Measure for Measure,” starring Elon Musk. And congressional midterms are a grudge match, the next round scheduled for January, according to the headlines: “The GOP captures the House — and is ready for revenge.”

If we are engaged in a “battle for the soul of the nation,” as President Joseph Biden says, we are struggling with the rules of engagement. More than ever, retaliatory behavior tempts us, as we confront anti-democratic forces at home and abroad. Stung, we wonder how to best address injustice: I shouldn’t seek an eye for an eye, but I can’t turn the other cheek either. How did we get here, and where do we go?

When I first studied revenge 20 years ago, it was hard to find Americans willing to speak openly about settling scores. I had to travel overseas to find communities that embraced their revenge heritage, while researching my book Revenge: A Story of Hope. In northern Albania, I met Mark Pashko Malotaj, a retired farmer and one of six Christian members of the local Blood Feud Committee. I asked him, “How does your canon [revenge code] fit in with ‘Turn the other cheek’?”

Mark laughed: “In Albania, we have a saying, ‘Don’t hit my cheek because I’ll kill you.’”

In the cobblestone alleys of Sicily, cradle of la vendetta, even the clergy acknowledged rough justice. Padre Ennio Pintacuda, told me, “If you don’t take revenge, you’re like a woman!”

In Iran, vengeance rites were so mainstream, the justice system incorporated them. In the holy city of Qom, Grand Ayatollah Adbdul Karim Musavi Ardebily, Chief Justice of Iran’s Supreme Court, told me about a case in which a man had thrown acid in the face of his beautiful wife. She took him to court.

“I want his eyes,” the woman said, rejecting her husband’s $7,000 offer in blood money. “I want to blind him as he blinded me.”

Under the judge’s supervision, she felt for her husband’s face, her fingers striking the air like a piano player. Relatives guided her wrists, helping her find her husband’s eye sockets. She used a metal spoon to dig.

“The husband was happy,” the Grand Ayatollah explained to me, winking. The wife poked out only one eye. “He got a discount.”

Although these examples were extreme, they revealed a theme: Beyond U.S. shores, revenge was acceptable, at times respectable. It wasn’t a moral choice but self-preservation, a sacred duty, or animus dressed up as honor. Yet when I came home and shared these stories with American friends, they furrowed their brows. Revenge was for others.

That is, until recently. The cultural shift began two decades ago, the sunny morning that our country was sucker-punched. Dec. 7, 1941, may be a date that lives in infamy, but Sept. 11, 2001, prevails as a date of humiliation. While Pearl Harbor was damaged by the military might of the Japanese empire, the World Trade Center was devastated by 19 guys with box cutters. That moment of revealed weakness was more than painful for our nation; it was shameful.

For those seeking an education in revenge, shame is the first lesson. It is the first of four conditions — shame, memory, jungle, simplicity — that incubate revenge, that altered our domestic environment over the last 20 years, and that changed the way Americans behave. Shame, or the loss of honor, triggers revenge, sometimes more than the actual offense. In certain tribal societies, shame is the only lawful motive for homicide. In old Europe, when men dueled, they often fired one shot. Even if both survived, striking back eased public embarrassment.

Since the U.S. was blindsided on 9/11, presidents of every temperament — from George W. Bush’s displaced punishment of Iraq, to Barack Obama’s record number of drone strike assassinations, to Trump’s Muslim ban — have struggled to erase the national humiliation. The mad-as-hell swagger extended to the general population because, if we’re being honest, we too were mortified.

Add to that a growing focus on the past, where Americans learned their second lesson in revenge: memory. While shame ignites vengeance, memory keeps it burning. In southern Greece, women sang bloody lullabies to the sons of murder victims so they would remember and avenge. In Ireland, the bardic tradition kept sectarian memories simmering since the 1690 Battle of the Boyne.

As citizens of the New World though, Americans distinguished themselves by looking forward. We benefited from a kind of adaptive amnesia, setting aside destructive grudges. Whether we were unjustly fired, cheated on, or ripped off, Americans were schooled to view the past as an economist might — sunk costs. Our focus was on material progress, and on optimizing the future. As the ecumenical American clergyman Douglas Horton once said, “While seeking revenge, dig two graves — one for yourself.” The self-defeating nature of revenge rendered it unproductive — economically, socially and politically — and therefore, distinctly un-American.

As I wrote, tongue in cheek, in my book: “The opposite of revenge isn’t forgiveness. It’s shopping. It’s being busy with the practical, shallow, now.”

Americans were good at the practical-shallow-now. Then our model crashed. The socio-economic shocks starting in 2008 eliminated jobs, homes, savings, and for millions, a future. With nowhere to go, people began trolling the past. For some, like the “Jews will not replace us” crowd at Charlottesville, they yearned for the bygone era of white, male power.

Others looked back at U.S. history in justifiable horror, calling for a long overdue racial and ethnic reckoning. There was no moral equivalency, no grounds for comparison, yet all were energized by memories. Rather than forgive and forget, folks retaliated and remembered. Historic characters poked through the layers of time in the form of statues, raising buried hatchets of class and color. Who deserved to be torn down? Who will be offended? Americans now track a running score of insults. No one wants to be the last slandered or attacked, because in this environment if you aren’t a predator, you become prey.

Which leads to the third lesson in revenge: the law of the jungle. In the jungle, the roles are clear. There are aggressors and victims. No animal can hope for a mediating agent to swoop in and order a predator to retreat. The same is true for humans living in conditions of chaos. Disputes resolve themselves according to the Darwinian rhythms of jungle justice.

“In my world, if I’m helpless I’m dead,” an Israeli gangster named Smitt once told me, sitting on a curb in Jerusalem. Smitt’s crew wore Adidas sneakers because they had the quietest treads to prowl the homes they robbed.

“Revenge is the law of the outlaws,” Smitt said.

For people like Smitt, whose criminal gang relied on street justice, score-settling is about survival, not hate. Although most Americans have yet to descend into such lawlessness, we are increasingly doubtful of the institutions and individuals that guarantee fair play. We’ve lost confidence that the government, international agencies and other societal referees, can enforce order in multiple domains, including elections, social media, pandemics, immigration, cyber and climate. As public trust erodes, private justice emerges.

While these three elements of revenge explain motive, there’s no execution without the fourth: simplicity. Revenge is not a subtle dish. To serve someone his just deserts, you eliminate nuance, and distill complicated truths into ingredients that are blindingly simple. Enemies and friends. Oppressors and oppressed. Do not add empathy.

Revenge is sweet when the recipe is simple: The weak become strong and the strong become weak. Every plot pivots on this simple reversal of power. Every avenger seeks it, from Shakespeare’s pound-of-flesh merchant, to the warriors in 13th century Icelandic sagas, to Anez abu Salim, the Sinai Desert Bedouin and hashish smuggler, who told me, cocking his pistol and spitting a date pit into the sand: “If a man takes revenge after 40 years, he was in a hurry.” There are only two kinds of people — winners and losers.

If this sounds familiar that’s because it appears daily in the revenge opera starring our former president. Trump plays his part with predictable simplicity. Asked in 2016 to name his favorite biblical verse, Trump replied, “an eye for an eye.”

More than any figure in U.S. history, Trump has normalized revenge. When our military launches retaliatory strikes, officials say, “This is justice, not revenge.” The same justification is voiced for death penalty cases. To admit wanting revenge is to admit you have been crushed and need to be rebuilt. Few Americans are comfortable admitting that, even to themselves. Then along came Trump. He changed the emotional equation. “I love getting even when I get screwed,” he wrote in “Think Big.” “You need to screw them back 15 times harder.”

Using the simplifying instrument of Twitter, Trump recalculated loss as an opportunity to clobber. He replaced complex assessment with tit-for-tat math, inspiring followers, and some opponents, to adopt his partisan formula for division: us vs. them. Each side takes its turn. And in the end, the simple math doesn’t add up because revenge, exacted to show strength, only provokes more revenge that diminishes it.

Where does that leave Americans? Over the last two decades, our deepest fears and insecurities have been stirred. Our culture has shifted. Our confidence is shaken. Immersed in the four revenge lessons — shame, memory, jungle, simplicity — we are seeking a response to injustice that is right for our time.

The choice will define us. Giving in to our grievances would mean giving up the very attitude that helped Americans thrive. Grace is appealing, though unrealistic. The world is tougher and after 9/11, we won’t be suckered again. Hoping for divine vengeance is an intriguing idea for people whose currency is stamped “In God We Trust.” But I fear we’re both too proactive and impatient to wait for God. Transforming enemies into allies through radical acts of kindness depends on a cooperative nemesis. How rare it is for an enemy to about-face and collaborate. None of these options work.

To update our approach as a new year draws near, we must take cold stock of our changed character and values. Americans today are more scrappy, dramatic and, above all, aching. The need to get even can no longer be denied. The answer then, perhaps, is to channel the fear and anger. Reverse the power dynamic by building ourselves up, rather than tearing others down. Embrace “success is the best revenge” as a national anthem, and overpower opponents by outperforming them.

Neither an eye for an eye, nor turn the other cheek, there is a third option not written in the Bible yet hiding in its language. Tucked inside the Hebrew word for revenge, nekamah, is the verb kum, which fittingly, means rise up. We can rise up, use our rage. Not against each other, but rise above our wrecked selves. Get up, kum, get better. Get American revenge.

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