The Public Interest

The case for revenge

Andrew Oldenquist

Winter 1986

ANYONE who reads newspaper reports of statements by crime victims, their relatives, and the parents of children whose murderers have been convicted (or acquitted), cannot doubt that the world demands retribution for criminal harm. Not just restitution or compensation, which in any case often is impossible, but retribution. Simply attending to page one of a big city newspaper shows that after every conviction the victims, or their relatives, applaud, or cry with relief, and otherwise indicate that the world can never be right again until the one who hurt them so terribly has received his due. Or consider the great hunt for Josef Mengele and for other Nazis now in their dotage; it is of course a quest for retribution, a quest that makes no sense at all on utilitarian grounds. The plots of movies and television dramas contain veritable orgies of vengeance. All those vengeful tough cops, vigilantes, and enraged parents are cheered on by audiences, one cannot help thinking, in proportion to the public’s perception that the law lets criminals go free.

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