The Victim's Dilemma

If forgiveness is divine, then why does revenge feel so sweet?

Content Tools

The television weatherman described the July day as outstanding: warm, breezy, low humidity. I met my old friend Matthew for dinner in Battery Park City in lower Manhattan. After dinner, we decided to walk the short stretch to the 11:30 p.m. ferry for my trip home to Staten Island. Across from the neoclassical bulk of the Old Custom House, we turned south on State Street. Matthew was on my left. In my right hand I carried a black leather tote bag that contained books, my dress shoes, my purse. We were a block from the ferry, at ease with each other, at ease in our city.

Matthew says that out of the corner of his eye he glimpsed someone running and thought “a jogger,” as casually as he might have thought “a taxi,” “a bicycle,” “a tree.” I felt my shoulder being shoved and my bag being pulled from my right hand. I held on and found myself being dragged, arm extended until the bag was ripped away and I fell to the sidewalk.

From my skewed position on the pavement, I saw a young man running down State Street with my bag in his right hand. Matthew was at his heels, shouting, “You bastard!”

My left hand scuttled over the concrete until it found my glasses. They were unbroken. I tried to rise, but my right arm would not help. Then Matthew was back to get me on my feet. My right shoulder felt puffed up and alien. Later I learned that my upper arm was broken in two places, an injury from which it would take me months to recover. Each of my stockings had a perfectly round hole in the center of the knee. Within these circles, the skin was bleeding. I thought: My keys are gone. I cannot enter my own home. The bastard mugged me.

The counsel of realism advises me that my mugger will get off scot-free. The counsel of my imagination, however, permits me to play “what if” games with his future. In one fantasy he evades the law but not punishment. In my purse was a newly filled prescription for estrogen pills. What if he hated gender-bending but liked drugs? What if he thought my little pink and yellow tabs were a great new way of getting high? What if he gobbled them down and then found his voice rising, breasts enlarging, genitalia shrinking?

I have no bloodthirsty fantasies about what I would do if I could get my hands on my mugger. I read at too impressionable an age Sir Francis Bacon's warning that revenge is a dangerous form of wild justice, a warning that the history of my century has made palpable. I also think that “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” is profoundly stupid, enshrined though it is in some legal codes. It wrongly pictures a universe of replicable experiences in which the punitive suffering of X both mimics and exactly balances the suffering X has caused Y. Even if I were to break my mugger's right humerus in two places, his suffering would not be identical to mine. And even if it were, it would not repay the multiple costs of my mugging. Nor would it permit my right arm to rotate upward behind my back.

One Sunday during my convalescence, as I was clumsily turning the pages of the newspaper with my left hand, I came upon an article about an experiment in justice in Australia. Although it was new, it adapted ancient indigenous practices from that country and New Zealand. A criminal and his or her family, however defined, sit down with the crime victim and his or her family, however defined. Together, the two groups talk and invent an appropriate punishment for the criminal. The punishment must serve a dual function: to recognize the harm that has been done and to turn the criminal away from doing more harm.

What if I had a place at such a table? What would my negotiating position be?

I would first learn if my mugger was an evil man. I had a conversation once with a friend who had served in the army and then owned a small grocery store. He had dealt with fraud, theft, and violence. “Ron,” I asked, “what percentage of people do you think are truly evil?”

“Five percent,” he answered quickly. “Five percent.”

I would want to know if my mugger belonged to Ron's 5 percent. Did he willfully and frequently do harm to others? Did he take pleasure in his ugly power? Or was he blandly indifferent to its ugliness? If my mugger were among Ron's 5 percent, I would want him locked up. But if he weren't, I am skeptical about the expedience of paying for his room and board in prison.

I would instead require that he do more than understand the harm he has caused. He would have to drip with and smell the sweat of remorse. Then, as an act of contrition, he would perform grunt work in either the pediatric or the geriatric wing of a hospital. He would be tautly supervised so that he could do no harm as he did his penance. He would toil until a jury of those whom he was serving concluded that he would be less likely to mug someone than to come to the aid of someone who had been mugged. The jury's verdict would not be innocence or guilt but capacity or incapacity for civilization. Only then would I get back what he really stole from me: not my keys or my money or my healthy rotator cuff, but my utopian confidence that civilization itself cannot be permanently knocked down.

Catharine Stimpson is dean of the graduate school of Arts and Science at New York University. Adapted from The American Scholar (Summer 1998). Subscriptions: $25/yr. (4 issues) from the Phi Beta Kappa Society, 1785 Massachusetts Av. NW, 4th Floor, Washington, DC 20036.