Why Revenge Is Bad and Good

ByBryan Robinson

Nov. 13, 2003 -- 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.

"People used to tell me, particularly when Julie hit her teenage years, that 'Bud, you'd change your mind [about the death penalty] if your daughter was murdered,' " Welch said. "After the bombing, I was so full of revenge and retribution, I didn't even want a trial for [Oklahoma City bombers] McVeigh and [Terry] Nichols. I thought the federal government and prosecutors were useless and I just wanted them fried."

Welch, who owned a service station in Oklahoma City at the time, said he was so grief-stricken and had such a hard time dealing with his loss that he would go home and drink to try to get himself to fall asleep. His drinking gradually increased.

One day, about 10 months after Julie's death, Welch went to the bomb site — which he routinely visited because that was the last place where his daughter was alive — and began to examine himself and search for a way to get past his grief. He found that he was being consumed that the same rage and thirst of revenge that had driven McVeigh and Nichols to blow up the Murrah Federal Building and kill his daughter.

"I finally asked myself three questions: Do I need to have a trial right away? Do I need to have a conviction? Do I need to have McVeigh and Nichols executed?" Welch said. "I came to the conclusion that none of those things needed to be part of the healing process I had to go through to get past this and stop the alcohol abuse and stop smoking three packs of cigarettes a day.

"It was hate and retribution that drove McVeigh and Nichols. They were getting revenge for what happened in Waco, Texas, exactly two years earlier on April 19, 1993" — when U.S. government agents began storming the Branch Davidian compound, and the sect's stronghold went up in flames.

"It was out of rage and retribution that Julie and so many fine people are dead today," Welch said. "After I began to realize what drove McVeigh and Nichols, I realized that I didn't want to let my rage and revenge get out of control like it did with them."

The Tug of War between Jesus and Batman

Still, society constantly seems to be in a constant tug of war between seeking revenge and "turning the other cheek."

Religious and historical icons such as Jesus, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Mother Teresa and Pope John Paul II are admired for their legacies of love, peace and forgiveness. But pop culture celebrates vigilantism and stories where the heroes are driven by revenge.

All superheroes are vigilantes. Comic book protagonists such as Batman and Spider-Man are motivated by a desire to avenge the death of a loved one or seek vengeance for those who are perceived as helpless — and they are two of the most popular superheroes of all time. Quentin Tarantino's latest film, Kill Bill — Vol. 1 — which tells the story of a former assassin who seeks revenge on a team of former allies who tried to kill her — topped the box office last month.

Some argue that experiencing revenge, even through works of fiction, does not ease feelings of anger and vengeance.

"The media contains a lot of this [revenge themes]," said Takooshian. "There were studies in the 1960s that violence in films did not decrease feelings of anger and violence in viewers but increased those feelings. It increased those feelings of anger and retribution. … This is not a trend found just in our [U.S.] society, but in other societies."

Reconciling the Roots of Revenge

So how does someone cope with a need for revenge? The first, and perhaps most important, step is taking responsibility for your emotions, like Bud Welch did.

"The first thing is to realize that … by having need to hurt somebody, you're hurting yourself," Mikulas said. "You're allowing yourself to be hurt twice physically and emotionally. It's very important for the person to take responsibility for their anger and resentment.

"You can realize that you can be out there trying to create change in society, whether it's trying to make changes in the law," Mikulas added. "You can realize you can be out there actively trying to make changes without upsetting yourself."

Since losing his daughter in the Oklahoma City bombing, Welch has traveled around the country and given lectures on his experience and his opposition to the death penalty. He became associated with Murder Victims' Families for Reconciliation, a Massachusetts-based group that helps families cope with the loss of slain loved ones.

To the anger of some Oklahoma City victims' families, Welch strongly opposed the execution of Timothy McVeigh in 2001 and warned his execution would not bring anyone true peace of mind.

Two years after McVeigh's execution, Welch says some families are still searching for the sense of closure they thought his death would bring.

"I haven't had one family come up to me — or say in the newspapers or in the news — that they have felt better now that McVeigh is dead," Welch said. "Some people came up to me and said, 'Well, it was too easy. He just went to sleep.' Now that doesn't mean that some families don't feel better, but I haven't heard it."

The Road to Healing — From Within

Two objectives of the criminal justice system are to obtain retribution for the crime victim while also rehabilitating the offender — goals which can seem to clash at times. Some states have adopted victim offender reconciliation programs, where convicted offenders admit wrongdoing, have a supervised encounter with the people they've victimized and, under the guidance of a counselor, work out a restitution agreement. Under these programs, criminals pay for their crimes while having the chance to earn the forgiveness of their victims.

The pilot — or pilots — who dropped the bomb that killed Ali Abbas' parents and took away his arms have never been identified publicly and do not face any criminal charges. Pentagon officials have said it is very difficult to match individual soldiers with the targets they hit in combat, especially when multiple strikes are involved.

But perhaps an approach similar to a victim offender reconciliation program could help Ali deal with his own need for vengeance.

"My hunch is that timing is a critical factor here," said Ron Claassen, founder of a VORP program in Fresno, Calif., and professor of peacemaking and conflict studies at Fresno Pacific University. "If the pilot was made to recognize the victim's loss and the full impact that his actions had on him and that steps were done to do right by the boy and that that was made clear to the boy, maybe he might be open to a meeting in the future. It's hard to say, but if the process was made clear to the boy, the pilot is making serious steps to fully understand how he impacted him, it might be easier."

Although there's no way of restoring what Ali lost, Claassen said the boy probably needs an acknowledgement of his wrongs, and a chance to respond.

"He also might like this because he would have a chance bring all his feelings to the forefront and voice his opinions," he said. "It's important that he know that that is part of the process. This boy suffered a horrible loss and there's not much that could be done to make it up to him."

For now, Ali is under the care of his uncle and is living as a guest of Britain's Limbless Association in a suburb of London. He has said he is looking forward to returning home to Iraq as he undergoes occupational therapy and gets used to his new limbs — a daily reminder of his painful loss. Maybe someday they won't remind him of desire for revenge.

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