Why Forgive a Mass Killer Who Murdered Your Son?

After terrible hurt, what helps us survive, forgiveness or revenge?

Posted Aug 29, 2020

Mass killer Brenton Tarrant has just become the first person in New Zealand to receive a term of life imprisonment without parole.

27 creative commons license
17 March 2019, over 11,000 people in New Zealand attending a vigil for the victims of the terrorist attack
Source: Kristina Hoeppner 17 March 2019, 18:56:27 creative commons license

Given the heinous nature of the crime, during the massacre on 15 March 2019 at two Mosques, he fired at the injured, those hiding, running away, or calling for help; he even shot a three-year-old child, so the sentence was not a surprise. New Zealand does not have a death penalty.

But it was the heartfelt declaration of forgiveness,  in court a couple of days ago, by one bereaved mother, addressing the perpetrator of New Zealand’s worst peacetime massacre, which has generated worldwide attention.

Janna Ezat, whose son Hussein Al-Umari was one of 51 people killed in 2019's Christchurch shooting, explained, during a series of victim statements, to the 29-year-old 'White Supremacist', about her son; 'He used to give me flowers for my birthday but instead I got his body…’.

Then she looked up from the speech she had been reading, and gazing directly at the mass killer, declared, in what now appears to be an unscripted statement, ’I have decided to forgive you, Mr Tarrant, because I don’t have hate, I don’t have revenge, in our Muslim faith we say if we are able to forgive, forgive. I forgive you. Damage was done and Hussein will never be here so I have only one choice to forgive you'. Tarrant, it is reported, appeared to nod, acknowledging her words, even blinking profusely, then wiping his eyes.

But is this act of forgiveness letting the offender ‘get away’ with their crimes?

The Hollywood film industry uses revenge as a key plot device, suggesting these ever recurrent stories fill a deep need in our psyche. Psychologists find that plotting retaliation towards those that have wronged us occupies a surprisingly large part of our mental space. Maybe revenge fantasies are a good thing, perhaps they bestow a sense of restored purpose and control in an otherwise wrecked life.

Casey Ryan Kelly, an academic at the Department of Communication Studies, University of Nebraska, Lincoln, has even recently mounted an argument that part of the psychology of President Donald Trump’s appeal to his electorate, centres on a widespread popular desire for vengeance, which his speeches, according to this theory, manipulate and exploit.

His analysis entitled, ‘Donald J. Trump and the rhetoric of ressentiment’, and published in the academic journal, Quarterly Journal of Speech, argues; Trump offers his audience an emotional-moral framework in which feelings and affects such as anger, rage, malice, and revenge are never at rest and no one act of vengeance can dissipate the nation’s desire for more.

However, the pursuit of payback might also be dangerous for your mental health, trapping you forever in negative emotions flowing from a wound that you keep picking at, as you contemplate retaliation. Maybe you can't get on with your life while you remain obsessed with getting even. To forgive has therefore traditionally been viewed by mental health experts as superior psychologically in the longer term, compared to obsessively plotting retribution.

A new psychology study now suggests it may have been a mistake to see forgiveness and revenge as opposing strategies, and that both might be empowering. The key issue is which strategy better restores a sense of power over your life. Being made to feel a victim inherently is damaging because it means control over your life has been taken from you. Power is liberating because it restores a sense of control.

Psychologists Peter Strelan, Jan-Willem Van Prooijen and Mario Gollwitzer, in their new study, found revenge is empowering when the person who hurt you did so with strong intent to cause you harm. However, the authors also point out that revenge is likely to be unsatisfying when it serves no clear purpose. If victims can see that their wrongdoer understands the reasons for revenge, or has learnt from it, then revenge will help you feel empowered, resulting in better well-being.

However, the study entitled, ‘When transgressors intend to cause harm: The empowering effects of revenge and forgiveness on victim well-being’, points out that forgiveness can also be empowering because experiencing wrongdoing is like being burdened with emotional baggage. When people forgive, they cast aside that weight; they are signalling that the terrible consequences of another’s actions will not enslave them.

The new insight appears to be that revenge and forgiveness may both play a role in recovery. Pursue whatever strategy returns a sense of power and control over your life. Seeking revenge, if that desire merely ends up controlling you and producing no closure, in the end returns you back to victim status. 

This study, published in the British Journal of Social Psychology reveals hidden psychological depths when mother Janna Ezat so poignantly said to Brenton Tarrant, that she had no choice but to forgive. Her belief, and that of her faith, through which she had received the strength to survive, is that to embrace hatred instead, might be a psychological trap from which there may be no escape.

This statement of forgiveness appeared to wield particular psychological power, in particular appearing to move the killer, when nothing else of the harrowing victim experiences had, throughout the trial.

One explanation comes from a very surprising place, that mass killers themselves are obsessed and controlled by revenge.

One motivation behind a particular sub-type – the so-called ‘pseudo-commando’ is in fact being driven by revenge fantasy that has become all-consuming.

James Knoll, Clinical Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences from State University of New York Upstate Medical University, has described how the pseudo-commando’s pattern is to kill in public, to plan offenses well in advance, with no escape planned, expecting to be killed during the incident. This finding is presented in his paper entitled, 'The "pseudo-commando" mass murderer: Part 1: The psychology of revenge and obliteration', published in the Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law. 

The 'pseudo-commando' is driven by burning feelings of anger and resentment, arising from feeling persecuted, he is therefore enacting a highly personal agenda of payback.

Perhaps Brenton Tarrant's apparent emotional reaction to Janna Ezat's statement was because it was through her faith that she had mentally survived, and could now forgive. She was indicating the true strength of such a religious conviction, a power which mere psychotherapy can often only dream of, which therefore, could never be destroyed by mere physical annihilation, as he had attempted.

But maybe he was not sad for her, but instead was selfishly sorry for himself. His attempts to destroy this Muslim's woman's life, through taking her son, had in the end proved futile, because she preferred to forgive.

Mass killer Brenton Tarrant has become the first person in New Zealand to receive a term of life imprisonment without parole.

Janna Ezat has chosen not to be imprisoned for life by hatred.

Dr. Peter Bruggen passed away in 2018. While this article was written by Dr. Raj Persaud, Dr. Bruggen's name is retained biographically as a tribute to his contributions overall. 

References

Mardi J. Horowitz. Understanding and Ameliorating Revenge Fantasies in Psychotherapy. The American Journal of Psychiatry, Volume 164, Issue 1, January, 2007, Pages 24-27

Knoll, J. L. IV. (2010). The "pseudocommando" mass murderer: Part 1: The psychology of revenge and obliteration. Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law, 38(1), 87–94.

Casey Ryan Kelly (2020). Donald J. Trump and the rhetoric of ressentiment. Quarterly Journal of Speech. 106:1, 2-24 

Peter Strelan, Jan-Willem Van Prooijen and Mario Gollwitzer (2019). When transgressors intend to cause harm: The empowering effects of revenge and forgiveness on victim well-being. British Journal of Social Psychology (2019). 59(2)