Our Humanity, Naturally

A club for humanists

The dark side of vengeance

Revenge is sweet, but should it be?

Mixed emotions are to be expected after an event like the killing of Osama bin Laden. For most of us it seems strange to feel any sense of joy over the death of another human being, but of course bin Laden was no ordinary person. National pride, revenge, and certainly a sense of justice - such responses, if we experienced them, were to some degree natural and understandable.

Most of this, of course, is not very pretty. The sober reality is that a madman has been brought to justice, but only after a decade of turmoil, wars, and untold human suffering. The first decade of this century should have ushered in an era of peace, hope, and progress but, because of Osama bin Laden, will instead be remembered as a time of conflict, fear, and disunity. Worse yet, even with his death we know that the "War on Terror" will most likely be unending, a phenomenon that we will probably live with for the rest of our lives.

Thus, for most of us any surge of exhilaration upon learning of bin Laden's death was eventually replaced by a more somber emotion, a realization that his violent demise was probably a necessary step on the road to closure, but hardly an event worthy of wild celebration.

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That is, unless you're Jeff Jacoby.

Jacoby, a conservative columnist for the Boston Globe, was downright gleeful in his comments on the bin Laden news. In fact, his column demonstrates the eerie brutality of his conservative and religious mindset.

"Good people rejoice when evil monsters are cut down," Jacoby tell us, apparently unaware that a sense of fulfilling vengeance, though natural, is hardly itself a reason for celebration. We may be naturally inclined to relish violent retribution, and even justified on a pragmatic level in pursuing it, but that does not make vengeance itself morally admirable, nor does it make any violence a reason for joyous festivity.

Jacoby is a professional moralist, conservative in his religion and quick to claim the righteous high ground in his writing. This makes his exaltation of revenge (which, predictably, he cloaks in the language of "justice") particularly distasteful, for one can see the delight with which he cherishes the bloodletting of the enemy whom he despises. Of course nobody is shedding tears over bin Laden's demise, but Jacoby's hypocritical exaltation of vengeful justice, his celebratory rationalization of violence, is a textbook example of the conservative religious mind in its unguarded form.

Ordinary citizens, tabloid headline writers, and even political leaders seeking popular support can perhaps be excused for displaying emotions that are, after all, natural (if not laudable) in response to the death of a mass murderer, but Jacoby writes as a morally grounded public intellectual of sorts, at least on the local level in Boston, and he displays a savagery that is anything but exemplary.

Yet it is no coincidence that the savagery is entirely consistent with the conservative religious values that he so often promotes publicly. "Now the archterrorist is in hell, and Americans are rightly overjoyed," he tells us. With high-minded satisfaction he surmises that this is a death "an American can love." 

It's ironic that Jacoby refers to love, which of course is supposed to be central to followers of the Judeo-Christian deity. Can't you just feel the love emanating from Jacoby? With God on his side, he leaves no doubt about how his faith has shaped his morality and worldview. So coincidental, isn't it, that his religiosity is not at all inconsistent with the emotional tirade of his bloodlust? God bless him, indeed!

Of course, we all can relate to some degree to that sense of revenge, that emotional charge that accompanies the climactic death of a wretched personality like bin Laden. He attacked us, and our natural human inclinations toward tribalism, in-group defense, and violent retribution were all awakened by the September 11 attacks. Innate human tendencies toward revenge, and the raw satisfaction of attaining it via bin Laden's violent death at the hands of our elite troops, all come into play here.

But to a humanist these emotional responses can be explained naturally, as evolved tendencies that gave our ancestors survival advantage through many millennia. Most importantly, we recognize that these tendencies, though innate in the human animal, are often disturbing and not always admirable. Revenge, for evolutionary reasons, is indeed sweet, but in a perfect moral world it wouldn't be.

Of course justice is sweet, too, but punitive justice is hardly reason for gleeful celebration. Funny that we never see Jacoby so giddy over matters of economic justice or social justice.

To Jacoby, innate and violent human inclinations must be raised to religious stature. He says he celebrates justice, but it's clear that what he really celebrates is violent, brutal, merciless revenge. (Or, at the very least, we must believe that his noble sense of justice is only coincidentally consistent with the delivery of vengeance.) And, as a deeply religious man, Jacoby's thirst for revenge must be validated, justified in his mind as righteous.

This perverse, rationalized celebration of hatred - and that's exactly what it is - finds fertile ground in the most conservatively religious of psyches. Of course, we all hated bin Laden to some degree, but only the Jacobys of our society could exalt that hatred into a righteous exercise.

Indeed, events such as the death of bin Laden are among those rare instances when most Americans feel a sense of unity, a sense that we have passed a milestone together as a tribe, as a people. I'll stand with Jacoby as an American and share this day, but as a humanist my experience is ultimately much unlike his.

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Text copyright 2011 Dave Niose

Dave Niose is an attorney, activist, and writer. He is president of the Washington-based American Humanist Association.

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