While visiting a sister-friend of antiquity, met more than half my life ago, we watched some sixth-season Buffy with her preteen daughter. One of the main characters, devastated when her lover is murdered, goes haywire for vengeance. The tone in the show, reflected in the room atmosphere, was, “Oh, no! New problem! We mustn’t let her do that!” My reaction was: “Go, Willow!”
We certainly didn’t stop the show to discuss our opposite responses, and only skimmed them the next day (that being all that was required. One of the nicer things about knowing someone really well is not often having to create massive blueprints titled “How I Feel And Why”– ) but at the time, I wondered how different things might have been if, instead of saying, “She must be stopped!” the Scoobies had said, “How can we help?” Or, if they really were against it in their mush-minded little hearts, why they didn’t just say, “Vaya con dios?”
I know, I know; calling the cops on a supernatural entity is pointless. If you are the only one who can help the situation, you are obliged to do so. But only if help is actually needed. I am not a fan of vengeance, ever. Some people mistake vigilante justice for vengeance, and it’s not. It’s simply justice enforced by an individual rather than the system. It’s still just.
The meaningful point of separation is wrongdoing. If a high school boy asks a girl in his class on a date, and she ridicules him, she is guilty of meanness. If he decides to get back at her by killing her cat, slashing her tires, or raping her (all of which happened to people in knew in school), he is guilty of vengeance. It’s not justice, it’s “you hurt my feelings so I’m going to hurt you worse.” It’s especially blatant when someone who has been mistreated takes it out on all future romantic candidates, particularly when they have done nothing wrong. Preemptive punishment.
Another blatant form of vengeance is torture. Torturing someone, by stalking, harassment, or physically assault, is another clear difference between vengeance and (vigilante) justice. “I’ve been hurt” turns to “I will hurt.”
Justice may involve making someone pay an eye for an eye, but it’s not just, by definition, if it goes beyond that point. Of course, mass murderers, serial rapists, genocidal dictators, and other big-box damage dealers cannot ever pay back what they have taken from others. And if a person accidentally injures someone else, the only just thing is to let fate deal out an accident to him, or not. Carelessness is tougher, unless prudence is specifically mandated in a situation (driving a car, administering medication, caring for children, etc.,) or unless the carelessness is egregious (pitching a lit cigarette butt into a dry ditch during fire season.)
But back to Willow for a moment. Some say that it would cost her her humanity to kill the man who killed Tara. I still don’t understand why. It’s just as possible that letting a murderer walk free would damage herself in a way. It’s a way of saying “what you did was okay,” and it’s dangerous to one’s self-integrity to allow damage-dealing to be unanswered. Behaving as if murder is allowable, no matter how firm your language in condemning it, sets a dangerous precedent in society and in the shaping of your character. It leads your subconscious to tag that behavior as acceptable. Let us not forget that leaving damage-dealers on the loose gives them permission to hurt others as well.
And without belaboring the point, let me stress that children have a hard lesson in discovering the real monsters are all humans. They will run back to parental abusers, cling to their hands, beg to be allowed to stay with them, pleading for the safekeeping of their abusers. “Don’t hurt my Daddy! Don’t take my Mommy!” This is totally understandable. But encouraging it is not doing the child any favors. Monsters, even loving ones, have to GO.
Let me say that the social compact relieves a huge personal burden by establishing a neutral justice system, blind to wealth and poverty, blind to race and class, blind to all but the scales, able to be relied on by all. We should really get one some day.