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About revenge

Hearing these days that the impossible may happen in Burma provokes more than a few reflections. The impossible? Maybe not. Who would have thought that Lech Walesa, a Polish electrician from the Gdansk shipyards, would one day become the first president of his post-communist country? Or how could black South Africans under apartheid imagine that Nelson Mandela would, after 27 years in jail, become the first democratically elected president of the country? Today there is more than a glimmer of hope that Aung San Suu Kyi may one day run for the highest office in Burma.

But remembering uplifting pages of our contemporary history and hoping for more also brings to mind the other side of the coin, revenge. That is an old instinct: you killed my father so I’ll kill your son, and because I killed your son, your brothers will wipe out my entire family, and so it goes. In most countries where there is regime change, revenge and retaliation are the almost inevitable consequence. In South Africa, because of Mandela, the setting up of Truth and Reconciliation Commissions allowed a peaceful transition to occur. The TRC has become a model to follow for difficult post-civil war or violent struggle situations. In Northern Ireland, after years of bitter religious and political conflict, former opponents have learned to live together peacefully. As an Iranian-American, I can only hope that when the present theocracy falls, people understand that exacting revenge would only start another bloody cycle. That is not to say that I want crime to go unpunished; the judicial arm of governments as well as international tribunals are there to fulfill that duty. (It goes without saying that I draw the line at capital punishment, a shameful act of revenge that the United States, alone among Western democracies, still practices.)

Despite appearances, our world today is geared toward more understanding and more reason and perhaps more compassion. What has been acceptable for a long time no longer is so. The need for revenge is an ugly and dangerous emotion that comes naturally to highly susceptible thugs, low-life gangsters, mercenaries of every ilk, fanaticized masses, brainwashed multitudes who take up arms when they consider themselves insulted or offended. The higher people are on the rungs of the ladder of human qualities, the less they countenance the idea.

Yet even in what we think of as civilized countries, revenge is an incentive. If we cannot stick a knife in the belly of someone who caused us grievous harm, we can at least show everyone what we’re made of. In the States, you often hear about doing this or that because it’s “the best revenge.” You’re encouraged to work toward a particular goal or put your finances in order not because you’ll derive more satisfaction from your life but because it’s the best revenge. Revenge against whom, one may ask. Take your pick: Against the society that didn’t allow you to become “anything you want to be” as your parents kept absurdly promising you; revenge against the world at large, against the teacher, boss, ex, bully, whoever humiliated or hurt you in ways large and small; against the wealthy and the good-looking and the successful that you want not only to emulate but to actually replace; or in general against “them.”

When, not too often, I hope, I go back to the frustration, anger, or disappointment caused by this or that person, I don’t want revenge; I simply want that person out of my life. Not for a second do I start making plans for getting even, something I’d possibly do had I been raised with a mafia background or had the same concept of “honor” as those fanaticized masses. After a great personal tragedy hit my family following the Iranian Revolution of 1979, close relatives described what they would like to do to the perpetrators. Although hurt beyond words by my loss, I was appalled at hearing their revenge fantasies. I don’t know if this makes me more civilized but I hope that on that ladder of humanity it lifts me up a rung or two.

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  1. November 20, 2011 at 8:35 pm

    Another great post, Saideh. To me the best “revenge” is to stay loyal to my own beliefs and to my own principles. It is a pity that the world’s politicians are taking the low road: the Republicans defending “water boarding”, the Dutch becoming stridently anti-Moslem, the Pakistanis anti-Christian, the Likudists becoming more like their worst neighbors, and the Chinese communists bent on bringing the Tibetans and other minorities to their knees. Not to mention the corrupt ayatollahs and holocaust-denying Ahmadinejads of all stripes.

    All these people (fundamentalists, populists, communists, etc.) share one thing: an absolute vision of their tribe’s superiority and a hate for anyone who stands in the way of their brand of “divine” power. And my “revenge” is to support and strengthen human rights, civic rights and the rule of the law.

  2. Ben Jensen
    November 29, 2011 at 7:19 pm

    You are right. A civilized transition would come with the following: general amnesty for those who did not commit major crimes; trial of major guilty elements by a fair and independent judiciary system (not on the roof of a school, as was done in 1979); reasonable and balanced verdicts (not like “war against God”) and sentences (not death sentence across the board, and preferably no death sentence at all).

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