February 2013 Bar Bulletin
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February 2013 Bar Bulletin

A Dish Best Served Cold ... and in Fiction

By Christopher Pitts


Humans love to punish. And we're good at it. Punishment has taken many twists and turns through time and across regions, but an ever-present element to punishment has been revenge.

With somewhat Victorian gusto, our modern society has decided revenge needs to be expunged from the joy of punishment. In spite of many enlightened efforts to this end, revenge has not been eradicated from the emotional lexicon of humanity. While revenge has been largely discredited as a legitimate response to conflict, it is interesting to note that revenge has also been transformed and displaced into the role of critic of modern society.

The avenger in pre-modern narrative stories often embodies law or at least some facet of law. Picture Don Quixote avenging the honor of his Dulcinea. There can be no doubt that his actions would conform to chivalric, divine and probably even the king's law.

In contrast, modern narrative stories place the avenger outside the law (think Batman). Nonetheless, the avenger is often the narrative protagonist, and an underlying driver of these narratives is often the failure or inadequacy of modern law. Why do we identify revenge as a base or failure of human emotion, while celebrating it in our stories? The answer, in part, lies with our relatively newfangled idea of what a state is and the expansive power it enjoys.

In stark contrast with the days of old, the modern state reserves for itself a monopoly on the right to inflict any and all punishment and generally lumps all other, would-be punishers into the same, discredited category of avenger. What is more, when the state punishes, it inflicts retribution (and perhaps some deterrence and some reformation).

In contrast, when private actors punish, they exact revenge. Though they may feel the same to the person being punished, retribution is held in higher regard than revenge. We may credit this distinction to a modern state that values institutional violence and a greatly expanded science of punishment over the more personal and less formal actions of the vigilante.

The growth of the modern state and the institutionalization of punishment have led us to a very specific, much narrower understanding of revenge. The modern state's assumption for itself of all legitimate violence has driven the avenger, in the modern era, into fictional narratives as a last refuge. And though our more enlightened selves might not openly admit it, revenge and its narratives provide a constant and alluring undertow to the modern science of retribution. The ease and seemingly inherent justice of revenge often stand in stark contrast to the technical language and apparent ineffectiveness of judicial procedure.

In "Dirty Harry," Detective Callahan gets to say, "You've got to ask yourself one question: Do I feel lucky? Well, do ya, punk?" Prosecutors don't get to say that. The narrative leaves no room to doubt that Callahan's actions are illegal and wrong - Callahan is Dirty Harry, not Virtuous Harry. But the narrative also leaves no room to doubt that the law is ineffective at protecting the people from the bad guys of the world. The unsatisfactory and inextinguishable tension between those two truths defines the role and appearance of modern revenge.

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