Sunday, November 1, 2009

Some scattered ponderings on revenge and justification for taking a life

This past week, I had several assignments due (hence the total absence of updates). One of them was film notes for the movie Dead Man Walking. It's a 1995 award-winning US film, with Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn. Brief summary taken from IMdb:

A caring nun receives a desperate letter from a death row inmate trying to find help to avoid execution for murder. Over the course of the time to the convict's death, the nun begins to show empathy, not only with the pathetic man, but also with the victims and their families. In the end, that nun must decide how she will deal with the paradox of caring for that condemned man while understanding the heinousness of his crimes.

The man was on death row for rape and murder. I decided to write my film notes on the history of capital punishment, to give the readers a little social context for the movie. However, I have not actually seen the film; I borrowed the DVD from the library, and I could have seen the showing here on campus tonight, but I wasn't sure I was ready to see it, not just because of the brutal rape scene(s) in the film, but more because I wasn't sure I could contain my emotions if I felt there was sympathy for the rapist.

I have been thinking a lot about healing, revenge, and the taking of a life lately. It started a while ago with the debate I had about abortion of a pregnancy resulting from rape. Surprisingly, the debate was fairly civil, and it actually got me thinking. I personally believe that women have the right to choose, and that life does not begin immediately at conception. However, I talked to several people who do believe that life begins at conception, and that all life is sacred, and therefore do not support abortion even after rape or incest. At first I was fuming, with smoke coming out of my ears and all that jazz, but after I calmed down and talked to a (for what it's worth, pro-choice) friend online, I began to understand a little more. I have developed a respectful agree-to-disagree stance with the people I debated with, and I emphasize "respectful," because I respect that their views are at least consistent. If they do not support abortion because it is murder, then it's still murder no matter how the pregnancy happened. I disagree with them because of our differing views on when life begins. Fair enough-- agreeing to disagree here works.

That makes me wonder about people who condemn abortion except in the case of rape/incest. They can't be condemning abortion because it's murder, so what are their reasons? The only thing I can think of is that it's a moral judgment against women who choose to have sex when they do not want children. Because rape and incest victims did not have that choice, they are protected from that moral judgment and so abortion is an acceptable option. While of course I agree strongly with that sentiment, I'm frowning at the original moral judgment bit. I don't think laws should be passed to regulate lifestyle choices, and I say this as someone who herself has a hard time not frowning at women who are irresponsible about protection during sex and therefore need to have multiple abortions (does that make me not completely pro-choice? I don't know). While I'm glad that there are people who understand the terrible situation rape and incest victims are in, I'm not sure how I feel about this middle-ground moral judgment situation in general. I admit that I have not had the time to do much reading about this stance, so I apologize in advance if I have made some egregious errors in my reasoning, and I welcome all kinds of explanations and insights if you have any to offer.

Anyway, back to the original topic-- Dead Man Walking. As I was researching the death penalty for my film notes, I of course stumbled upon arguments both for and against capital punishment, in both abstract/moral and pragmatic realms. One thing that struck me and embedded itself in my memory was someone's statement that the death penalty isn't justice-- it's revenge. It's taking someone else's life out of anger for what happened to you or a loved one. So there's abortion--taking the life of a child to try to salvage your own life*-- and then there's the death penalty, taking the life of the perpetrator him/herself. It made me ponder things like revenge and forgiveness.

*assuming you believe that life begins at conception and that you would heal better without carrying the child to term

Lex talionis: "an eye for an eye." This sentiment is often condemned as barbaric, but is it so wrong? Let's say we apply it not one hundred percent literally, and it more or less means revenge of some sort. I'm going to go out on a limb (i.e. my intuition) here and say that most people would not be in support of vigilante justice, the whole taking-matters-into-your-own-hands kind of thing, so the only vehicle of revenge is the state and its judicial system. Is it so wrong to want revenge against someone who has ruined your life or the life of someone you love? If someone steals something, they are fined and/or jailed. If someone commits rape or murder, which I think we would all agree is a more serious crime than theft, why shouldn't they be punished accordingly? I feel like a lot of the anti-capital punishment sentiment is that victims' families are acting selfishly by wanting to take the perpetrator's life in revenge for the life of their lost loved one. Speaking of selfishness, I've been told that I was being selfish by asking someone I used to consider a friend to not make rape jokes to or around me. If that's selfish, I'm not sure that's so bad.

On the flip side of revenge, I began to think about forgiveness. Personally, I guess I've been more inclined to forgive than to continue to hate and condemn. In the first case, in one of my relationships, I realized that his intent was never malicious. While being pressured and coerced and forced into non-consensual acts was damaging to my mental health, time has helped me see that we were both young and terrible at communication, and so I was able to work through my feelings, forgive him, and become friends with him again. In the second case, I will never see the man again. He's not stupid, and I think he knows to keep far away from me or my family. I know it was pre-meditated. He is a terrible person, and I sincerely, fervently hope that the threat of being prosecuted and jailed has scared him into never attempting to rape anyone ever again. However, the combination of time, distance, and therapy has lessened/dulled my anger at him, almost to the point where I don't waste the energy to hate him anymore. He means nothing to me, and therefore is not worth my time or thought.

Which leads me back to two previous posts I've made, where I tried to vent my anger and frustration at former friends/acquaintances of mine whom I do genuinely hate. The man who raped me is far, far away, and does not directly affect me anymore. However, people around me, people who knew me before it happened and still know me and still see me-- it does make me angry that they have so arrogantly dismissed requests for sensitivity. I cannot help but hate them. What does it mean that I have let go of my hate for the rapist but not for these people? I feel like their actions are just as awful. It is precisely because of them that rape culture flourishes and rapists feel free to do as they please. While the public can generally be convinced to condemn a proven rapist, it is almost impossible to ask anyone to hold these other people accountable for their rape-supporting attitudes. Because they are free to express their virulent, harmful views and rarely will anyone confront them about it, these people are just as terrible as the rapists themselves. I am by no means minimizing my utter condemnation of rapists-- I am saying that I think more people should be held accountable for the frightening rape culture that exists in America and so many other parts of the world today.

I wish I had a profound conclusion to put here that would tie everything together, but I don't. :-(  All I have to offer is my set of scattered thoughts. I do apologize for not having structured my post terribly well. I think I touched upon a couple issues that I'd like to elaborate on in future posts.

I should also put a disclaimer here that my views on abortion and capital punishment should be taken with a grain of salt, because I am writing as a woman who thankfully has never had to request an abortion, as a survivor who chose not to pursue charges through criminal court, and especially as a college student who has not had the time to thoroughly research any of these issues. *sheepish look*


  1. It's much easier to hate those who casually dismiss our pain when we see them every day than the original cause of the pain who we see only in our memories. It's even easier when those who dismiss us are supposed to be the ones who love us and care about our feelings.

    About the Lex Talonis: The original intent of the concept we call "an eye for an eye" was that the assailant would pay the victim a pre-determined amount of money for the eye. Other injuries would also cost the attacker an amount of money; the reference "an eye for an eye" means that a lost eye is worth the amount of money of an eye, while a lost finger is worth a different amount and a lost limb is worth a yet another amount. In this light, the practice is less barbaric, though even then the rich could buy their way out of trouble. How does that concept make you feel in regards to this topic? Jail for the attacker plus a cash repayment for the victim? Or does that further the belief that pain can be bought?

  2. I think your first paragraph hits it spot on-- it's really good to hear that this makes sense to someone else. I was always worried that I was reacting weirdly, and that no one would understand why the event itself doesn't pain me as much as the aftermath.

    As for your second paragraph, I'm really not sure. You make a good point about the belief that pain can be bought. I'm not sure-- I'll have to think it over more.