Vengeance Appeal

23:13 Tue 26 Feb 2008
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One of my internet bad habits is reading FARK.com. Occasionally I see worthwhile stuff there, and sometimes it keeps me connected with a certain aspect of the zeitgeist, but generally it falls squarely into the “time-wasting” category. Today, it managed to be quite depressing as well, due to the commentary on this incident: a woman was apparently threatened by a knife-wielding assailant; the woman called her husband; the husband showed up and shot at the assailant, missing; the assailant ran away; the husband got his SUV, pursued the assailant, hit him with the car, and then hit him with the car another two times, killing him. The prevailing FARK sentiment is that the husband is a hero for these actions.

I don’t think he’s a hero. I think his actions constitute murder. Possibly manslaughter, and possibly with extenuating circumstances/temporary insanity. But certainly not heroism.

Shooting the assailant, and killing him, at the time seems like it would have been justified. Once the guy runs away, no.

Perhaps predictably, the comments are largely either “anyone who threatened my family would die a horrible death” or “scum like the attacker don’t deserve to live and his death makes the world a better place”, coupled with lots of snide remarks about how people who disagree are feminized wimps who think “violent criminals just need a hug”.

I’ll ignore the snide remarks, since they’re just a combination of ad hominem and straw-man arguments. I’ll deal with the second justification first, the “scum deserve death” idea.

(Note again that killing in self-defense against an attacker wielding a deadly weapon is justifiable in my opinion.) Now, one key idea here is that the attacker becomes “scum” immediately upon threatening someone with a knife, and that “scumness” is a permanent, unchangeable condition. This assumption is inherent in the concept that it’s okay to kill them, because the fact that they will always be “scum” justifies this. This seems like a classic case of fundamental attribution error, the tendency to view the actions of others as due to their nature while viewing one’s own actions as dependent on circumstances. “Other” in this particular instance has a dual meaning, because the nature of the assailant’s actions make it very easy to remove them from the “people who might be like me” group and place them into the “violent psycho” group, thus firmly casting them as Other and making this kind of attribution bias more likely. In any case, here we don’t know anything about the assailant: were they disturbed due to some recent traumatic event in their own life, a person making one terrible mistake, a person off their medication for some reason, a person in temporary desperate straits, etc.? We don’t know, but the comments all leaned towards the assumption that this one act placed them in the “recidivist, violent criminal” category, which of course justifies their execution.

Even if their past behavior indicated the likelihood of attack, execution would still be unjustified, as total transformations have been known to happen, and we have no idea whether or not they might have undergone such. Furthermore, as a society we don’t have the death penalty for “threatening with a knife”, and thus it’s pretty ridiculous to claim that vigilante execution on that basis is justified. The argument that we should kill people who threaten other people with knives seems quite extreme to me (although I oppose the death penalty anyway), and brings with it counterintuitive effects—that is, if society made “threatening with a knife” a death penalty offense, knife-wielders would have significant incentives to kill rather than simply threaten, since they’re already facing ultimate sanction and their arrest is made less likely with the elimination of witnesses. Sure, that’s not as emotionally satisfying as “they’re scum and they deserve to die”, but given the choice between emotional dissatisfaction and encouraging the move from threat to murder, I’ll take the former.

This leaves the first argument, “those who threaten my loved ones deserve to die”. Again, emotionally satisfying, and succinct (always a plus). Clearly this is derived from the similar “those who harm my loved ones deserve to die” and just takes it a minor step further. While the actions of those operating under the emotional grip of a desire for revenge are understandable, they aren’t necessarily justifiable, an occasionally tricky distinction. Put another way, while we understand the actions of the person who kills their lover’s murderer, and might even (under certain circumstances) forgive them and not punish them, we don’t encourage people to pursue vengeance. One reason for this is the state’s desire to monopolize sanctioned violence, but another is that letting such emotions justify more violence is ultimately bad for everyone.

Here’s a little made-up scenario that hopefully illustrates the point. Apologies for the bits in all-caps, but somehow they seem most appropriate for getting across the emotional righteousness of the commenters on the thread.

The assailant attacks the woman, who calls her husband. The husband fires at the assailant, who runs away. The husband pursues the assailant who THREATENED HIS WIFE and runs him over with a car. At this point the assailant’s brother happens to be across the street, and sees the husband repeatedly and deliberately running over the assailant. The brother runs over to the now-stopped car, pulls a gun, and shoots the PSYCHO WHO RAN OVER HIS BROTHER dead. The original victim pulls up in her car, and sees a man resembling the assailant shooting her husband and then running over to a body and cradling it in his arms. She revs her engine and rams THE MAN WHO KILLED HER HUSBAND at high speed, killing him, then stops and goes to her husband’s body. The brother’s father…

Etc. I assume the point is eminently clear.

(Incidentally, I think that the “Canby=Idiot” response to the New York Times review of Death Wish may represent the apotheosis of the Internet-tough-guy/right-wing-nutjob comment genre.)

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