Revenge Is Not Enough


2015-06-09 – The saga of the Duggar family and their wayward son comes at the intersection of at least two of my cultural blind spots. I don’t follow reality TV and I don’t follow evangelical Christian families. It’s all invisible to me until you thrust it into my face. A recent article in the Atlantic, however, has gotten me thinking—not about the Duggars, really, but about the way we think about crime in this country.

Both the perpetrator of the sex abuse in the Duggar family and the victims live in the same family. Maybe it’s because of how little I know about these people that I could think of this more as an abstraction. I am not cheering for them or against them. And while I know that there are big cultural stakes on both sides, I feel free to consider how I would feel if my son molested my daughter.

And the truth is, if this had happened to me, I would want the state to mind its own business, just as the Duggars apparently do. This is not because I want to minimize the harm inflicted. It is because I feel that criminal penalties can only make things worse—obviously for the abuser, but also for the victims.

So what does this have to do with how we think about crime in this country?

Well, we have folks on one side who want to fry the molester. And we have folks on the other side who want to forgive him. And there’s no way to untangle the perpetrator and his victim. Is this a good basis for a criminal system?

When I was in law school, I learned a bunch of theories of punishment. There were theories of making a perp to pay the victim to restore their loss. This, of course, rarely occurs. There were theories of deterrence, though people are mostly undeterred. We have crimes with clear victims and we have crimes without clear victims. We have crimes in which perps victimize only themselves.

And we have revenge.

Research has indicated that we are wired for revenge, that we derive pleasure for revenge even if the act of taking revenge makes no sense, even if the cost of revenge is high, even if revenge accomplishes nothing, even if revenge continues a cycle of violence that comes back to bite us.

And so this country has escalated punishments beyond all reason.

But when punishments are seen as unjust, victims often don’t report crimes. When punishments are seen as unjust, victims can take matters into their own hands. Did you ever wonder why some people are so adamant about owning a gun?

And so the application of laws that are meant to protect us become arbitrary. Enforced sometimes and forgiven other times. It becomes an instrument of oppression, not an instrument of safety. We send people to prison for crimes that did little or no harm. And we let dangerous people go free.

And people who make mistakes, who could learn from their mistakes . . . don’t. Because we are too harsh—in theory, but can’t really stomach it.

I’m just like you and most everyone else. I get a charge seeing a bad person punished. But that is not what is happening. We put our vengeful tantrums on the books and think we’ve done a good thing. We haven’t.

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