Wild Justice: The Evolution of Revenge
The general ethical drift of Western countries in dealing with criminals has been in the kindly direction desired by humanist intellectuals, away from capital punishment and flogging and the rack. This is so despite some horrifying setbacks, to be sure, and over the protests of fundamentalist theologians, fascists, bullies, and other representatives of the powers of darkness. We are sensible of the destructive power of vindictiveness and hate, on the character if not the soul, and of the satisfactions of benevolence, and of course we approve humane reforms that enable us to suppress any questionable impulses of satisfaction we may feel when the wicked are punished.
In such a context, we would be cautious in approaching Susan Jacoby’s observations, which together suggest that it is the duty of society to exact measured retribution from those who offend its rules; that there is a natural instinct or moral imperative which we repress or ignore to our cost, and by doing so we create confusion, discontent, and more crime. There are automatic defenses against being persuaded to such an illiberal view. We’ve been warned against the charm of simple imperatives—tools in the hands of demagogues, inadequate to the modern existential dilemma. And some may resist the fact that Jacoby writes rather glibly without the comfortable cloak of expertise in some germane theological, penological, jurisprudential, or psychological specialty. These contending claims to lead mankind out of its errors of cruelty and vindictiveness she dispatches with an even hand in the process of awarding, convincingly enough, much blame for the present situation.
The title, Wild Justice: The Evolution of Revenge, does a disservice to the seriousness of an argument that is at bottom about the punishment of crime in modern American society, not, as the word “revenge” suggests, outraged exhusbands, Sicilians, the Jacobean stage. Jacoby gives telling examples of how people in court, testifying against horrible criminals, have nonetheless to be careful to say they want “justice,” not “revenge,” lest they be discredited, but she herself lumps together as revenge a number of things for which we have words we carefully differentiate. This confounding of terms supports certain assumptions that are troubling, first that punishment really is legalized revenge (not, say, correction or restitution), and that justice and retribution are merely institutional or mythological expressions of it. And in tracing the evolution of the subject she tends to give more weight to sources in history that authorize punishment than to those that have contributed to liberalizing dialogues on the subject, as though Moses had somehow access to better information than Voltaire. One is asked to believe that history is binding and forefathers are right. And one is asked to agree that the state, in taking on the duties of protection and arranging material restitution, also has some expressive function, as if it were art.
But many readers will agree with Jacoby’s most persuasive conclusion that the disorder or what has come to be called the “failure” of our criminal justice …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.