This was one of those fortuitous library finds: a book I’d never heard of before, but that seemed to address a subject of great interest to me at the moment. The anniversary of 9/11, along with the various reviews coming out of Christopher Caldwell’s Reflections on the Revolution in Europe, got me to thinking about how one would defend certain Western values to, say, an Islamic fundamentalist. On some subjects, like slavery and democracy, I was educated fairly clearly about how my society arrived at its position on them. But others not so much. Like, why does our criminal justice system work the way it does? Why don’t we punish most criminals corporally like we used to and like Islamic law still demands? Why imprisonment? It’s not that I haven’t heard plenty of personal opinions on the subject; but why do we believe in it?
Revenge: A Story of Hope isn’t exactly about that, but it is a deconstruction, in a sense, of Western attitudes about justice. The father of the author, Washington Post reporter Laura Blumenfeld, is an American rabbi who got shot in the head while visiting Jerusalem in 1986, as one of a series of victims of a local Palestinian gang. Fortunately for him, the terrorist’s aim was bad enough that it just left a furrow in his scalp. Yet his daughter has a burning desire for vengeance, which, in true Western reporter fashion, she turns into a book project that involves going to the Middle East and both studying revenge in general, and personally tracking down her father’s shooter.
The result is a strange hybrid of a book, an examination of some of the most savage emotions in humanity in which one of the savages is the author herself. She comes across almost like her own psychotherapist, describing her anger with a clinical detachment. I’m only about a third of the way through it, so I don’t know where it’s heading, but it’s already provided plenty of food for thought.
Blumenfeld grew up in a family that sounds, in many ways, like my own — liberal, educated, upper middle class, and strongly believing themselves to be civilized. As a result, they don’t really understand her desire for vengeance, not even the father himself. They don’t seem to have forgiven, she notes, so much as forgotten — moved on with their lives. Blumenfeld records a frustrated entry from her diary at the time: “He blots out the memory and continues on his merry way … The opposite of revenge isn’t forgiveness. It’s shopping. It’s being busy with the practical, shallow now.”
While she doesn’t get much sympathy from her family, Blumenfeld’s interviews with various people in other cultures find a similarly contemptuous attitude towards those who will not take vengeance. One Palestinian she meets diagnoses Western culture this way: “Westerners don’t get revenge for their families, only for selfish reasons. They don’t have family ties like us. In America, when someone’s killed the only people who care are the police and the insurance company.”
There’s an annoying germ of truth to that assessment. People like me and Blumenfeld were raised to think that our people don’t do revenge because we’re enlightened, but it’s also true that revenge is awfully inconvenient. Early in the book, Blumenfeld describes two eleven-year-old girls engaged in a long feud, of the sort we all know: they remember various slights and insults, and avenge themselves through public humiliation and turning friends against each other. Such things certainly went on in my schoolyard, but the adults, for the most part, didn’t want to deal with it. Parents were off dealing with their own lives; teachers had classrooms to keep orderly, and they did not want to take sides in such squabbles. At any rate, soon enough the school year would be over, people would move on to different classrooms and even different schools, and the conflict would resolve itself.
Thinking about this makes me wonder how much the school experience has shaped not only our views of revenge, but of authority in general. For traditional Christians, Jews and Muslims, the most advanced being in the universe is one who remembers every sin and deals with it justly. For the post-Christian world, an advanced being is someone more like Klaatu, who doesn’t care what we’re fighting about so long as we don’t drag it into his space.
But when I think about it, probably the motto that best sums up how I was raised was, “Living well is the best revenge.” Americans who can expect some upward mobility in their lives tend to channel their anger into achievement, regaining their lost honor through money and status. It’s a function not just of social mobility, but physical mobility: after leaving school behind, most of us can hope to find a profession or social scene in which our talents will be appreciated, and we can earn respect. If another fight breaks out there, we can move into another field. Be defiantly happy to those who want to see you suffer.
Of course, not everybody in the world has this mobility. Heck, not everybody in America has that kind of mobility. It brings some bite to Blumenfeld’s remark that our solution to revenge is shopping. And I suspect that, in a subtler way, we don’t actually leave our old scores behind us but try to settle them in new fields. One of the most striking lines in the book so far is when a rabbi tells Blumenfeld, “The state of Israel is revenge for the Holocaust.” On one level, that doesn’t make sense: shouldn’t revenge for the Holocaust be taken against Germans? But it actually is revenge in the Western style: move to a new place, work hard, and set up a new order with yourself at the top. One wonders how much of Western history has been driven by it.