Laura Blumenfeld’s father is shot at an already inauspicious time in his life. He and his wife are separated; she’s moved in with another man, and the father, it is strongly implied, never quite got over her. When Blumenfeld discusses the event with her father twelve years later, after they have both remarried, he remembers calling his wife to tell her he’d been wounded. “She put me down. She belittled it,” he recalls. “How can you be married for twenty-five years and not care if your husband was shot?”
As she goes searching for the shooter and learning about revenge, Blumenfeld realizes that there is a strong connection between revenge and family ties. “If no one cared, if no one remembered, if no one demanded justice, then the value of life was empty,” she writes after hearing her father’s haunted reminiscence. “If meant the people who were supposed to love you did not.”
The family connection becomes especially apparent when Blumenfeld learns that the terrorists responsible for the shooting spree have been imprisoned, in a high-security facility that only relatives can visit. So instead of visiting the terrorists, she visits their relatives, saying simply that she’s an American reporter researching a book about revenge. They pride themselves on their filial loyalty. It is, in fact, the brother of the group’s mastermind who gives Blumenfeld the line I quote in my first post about this book, to the effect that Westerners’ unwillingness to avenge their families shows how selfish they are.
Despite seeing the dark side of this — apart from the fact that the family supports a terrorist, she also hears about domestic violence from the women — to some extent she envies this solidarity. For a while she entertains an idea of rallying her whole family against his family, trying to get her nerdy brother into the vengeful spirit. “In seeking revenge I could confound the truth that our family had disappeared,” she reflects. “We might have scattered … but as long as we fought for each other, our family lived on. That, in itself, was a tantalizing goal. What was the definition of a family, anyway? In aboriginal Siberia, the word for kindred families is cin-yirin, meaning ‘collection of those who take part in blood revenge.’”
Again, her family reminds me a lot of mine, and I can recognize the feelings in a slightly different form. It actually kind of reminds me of the dinosaurs chasing me around the house, and the realization that the family unit actually meant more to me than my parents’ marriage per se. But her cultural observations make me wonder just how much the disintegration of the vengeance culture is related to the disintegration of family bonds — and if so, which came first. I don’t think I’ve ever heard an advocate of traditional family values wanting to return to the days when family members would avenge each other. Yet that was, not all that long ago, part of Western culture. According to a sixteenth-century English law, Blumenfeld writes, a son who did not avenge his father could not collect his inheritance.
It does seem to me that one reason modern secular society has trouble understanding these things is that it places a relatively low value on loyalty in general. Not only do people leave their spouses with some regularity, but we take it as a matter of course that we will leave our employers, or they will leave us, and that we change out our politicians and vendors and friends and whoever else when they are no longer working for us. It’s nearly impossible to defend the inherent value of loyalty from the standpoint of rational self-interest, and difficult even from a utilitarian standpoint of maximizing happiness. But what is it that makes people happy? Is the smoothness of a relationship always more important than its permanence? Is there a way for people to feel solidarity without always fighting something? And this, too, seems to rely on the assumption of social and physical mobility that I mentioned in the first post, not to mention a high population density. If one relationship ends, it is assumed, we can find another that is more satisfying. Not everyone in all places and times could assume such things. And even people like Blumenfeld and me, I think, find that not everything is replaceable.