Why Revenge Is Bad and Good

Few people can blame 13-year-old Ali Abbas for wanting revenge.

In April, Ali lost both his arms, his parents, his brother and several other relatives to an errant U.S. bomb during combat operations in Iraq. The image of the wounded and burned boy crying in pain on a hospital stretcher inspired people around the globe to raise money for his medical care and further outraged those who opposed the U.S.-led war against Saddam Hussein's regime.

Last month, after being fitted for prosthetic arms at a London hospital, Ali said he hoped the people responsible for his disfigurement and the loss of his family would suffer some of his pain.

"I hope that the pilot who hit our house would be burned as I am burned and my family were burned," he told Independent Television.

Very few can identify with Ali's tragic story and the circumstances under which he suffered his loss. But everyone has felt the need to extract revenge. From being cut off in traffic by a rude driver and wanting to return the favor, to fantasizing about putting a school bully in his place, we have all felt wronged by someone — and mulled ways of gaining vengeance.

But while the need for revenge can be understandable, experts say it is never healthy.

"It's not healthy, but like many other human needs, it's also normal," said Harold Takooshian, professor of psychology at Fordham University in New York.

"Like hate, revenge is something that takes a toll on the person who feels wronged, as well as the [person's] enemy. It is inherently unhealthy because it takes a psychological and physical toll on the person. Venting those feelings of anger and hostility does not decrease those feelings," he said.

"It may give you a cathartic feeling, but it doesn't last."

The Endless Cycle of Retribution

Revenge spawns an endless cycle of retribution. It is not a long-term solution, but a quick-fix. That, experts say, is part of its appeal — it gives a wronged party some gratification, even though it is only temporary.

Some people equate revenge with seeking justice, but the two are not the same. People who seek revenge are driven by anger and violence and have not thought about how channel their negative feelings into something positive. They have not considered how they could use their negative experience — the injustice they suffered — to bring about change.

"It doesn't mean that you don't want to hold people accountable for their actions or that you don't want to seek justice," said William Mikulas, professor of psychology at the University of West Florida. "With revenge, you are coming from an orientation of anger and violence or self-righteousness: 'I want to get him, I want to hurt them … I want to make them pay.' You're coming from a place of violence and anger and that's never good."

A Grieving Father’s Epiphany

Bud Welch fought his rage and desire for retribution when his daughter Julie was killed along with 167 other people in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. Welch had opposed the death penalty before his daughter was killed, but he reversed his stance as he tried to cope with his loss in the weeks following the bombing.

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