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From Draft NOtices, November - December 2001

Breaking the Cycle of Violence:
The Need to Move Beyond Revenge

Molly Morgan


Why do people wish to exact revenge? What is it about pain and grief that spurs the desire to inflict the same emotional state on others? In the wake of the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, collective revenge appears to have consumed the majority of people in the United States. Although there is official denial that direct retaliation is the reason for the bombing of Afghanistan, and although there are most certainly economic interests really driving the current military actions, the political support for engaging in them comes from a widespread feeling by the populace that the U.S. is entitled to avenge itself however it sees fit.

Bloody retaliation for harms both real and imagined has ancient roots in human societies. As has often been observed, violence is never a solution to a problem; it consistently begets only more violence. The steady escalation of war throughout human history has brought us to a precipice: now that we possess the capacity to exterminate our entire species — as well as most other lifeforms on the planet — there is great urgency to understand the vengeful tendency in human nature if we are to eliminate the cycle of warfare and violence and evolve into sustainable, peaceful societies.

In her fascinating book, Blood Rites: Origins and History of the Passions of War, Barbara Ehrenreich traces the powerful historic and contemporary human emotions about war to early hominids’ transition from prey to predator. Without powerful teeth, claws, or the ability to run very fast, our ancestors were completely vulnerable to the lions, tigers, and bears of their day, who considered hominids as much prey as the enormous herds of ungulates that once roamed the earth. Ehrenreich paints a compelling picture of the utter terror that our human ancestors lived with for millions of years. In evolutionary terms, it has been only a short time since we learned to band together for self-defense and eventually, through technology, become predators ourselves. Ehrenreich demonstrates how, in cultures all over the world from Paleolithic to modern times, animal and human sacrifice — and eventually war — represent core religious rituals that re-enact the terrifying experience of predation by stronger carnivores and establish our very recent, but still fragile, self-image as predator.

The group experience of thrill and fear that our ancestors created during these ancient blood rites gives us insight into the war hysteria that grips societies even today. It is easier for the majority of people to become passionately bound together in the face of a common enemy than it is for love to unite or inspire most of us (and this can include peace activists). Ehrenreich explores the role revenge plays in this predisposition to find common cause around bloodletting:

The "necessity" of revenge may well be another legacy of our animal-fighting, prehistoric past. Revenge has a pedagogical purpose, whether the enemy is animal or human: It teaches the intruder to stay away. Conversely, the creature that does not fight back marks itself as prey . . . . In the face of nonhuman enemies, retaliation makes sense: The animals will not counterretaliate at some later time but, being sensible, will slink away.

Natural predators — those endowed from birth with a hunger for meat and the body parts to kill — do not suffer from an identity crisis as humans do. A natural predator is either successful in a hunt or not. If a particular chase does not result in a meal, a lion or tiger will either go hungry or continue to hunt — it does not sit and weep or question its place in the food chain.

Surveying war in cultures across the world, Ehrenreich notes that "no matter how often we are told that some human enemy must be ‘taught a lesson,’ the impulse to revenge is by no means entirely rational." Humans may initiate war to take something they want from other people as well as to perform bloodletting rites of passage for young men or simply to salve the pain of the natural death of a loved one by making another household mourn instead. Regardless of the particular trigger of the raid or war, there results a loser who is temporarily returned to prey status, prompting the need for a retaliatory action — immediately or generations later — to regain the status of predator. Ehrenreich explains:

Grief, depression, helplessness — these are the experiences of prey. The obvious way out, the way our species learned through a million years of conflict with larger and stronger animals, is to assume the stance of the predator: Turn grief to rage, go from listless mourning to the bustling preparations for offensive attack. . . . Animals secure in their predator status know nothing of revenge. But humans are hardly secure; our triumph over the other species occurred not that long ago, and childhood, for each of us, recapitulates the helplessness of prey. For purely emotional reasons, then, human antagonists readily find themselves caught up in the well-known "cycle of violence," taking turns as prey and predator, matching injury with injury — bound together as powerfully as lovers in their bed.

Revenge also creates absurdities that would be laughable if their consequences were not so devastating. Warring groups are obsessed with differences between each other that are often so minuscule as to be imperceptible by outsiders. Indeed, the very act of war has a homogenizing effect as each side is forced to study and adopt the strategies of the other in order to survive — continually exacerbating the need to more stridently insist on the other’s "differences."

Revenge institutionalizes yet another barrier to human connection. As Gandhi observed, the practice of "an eye for an eye" makes the whole world blind; revenge is not capable of actually repairing our injuries or replacing our losses. Furthermore, revenge denies the humanity of the other person by refusing to acknowledge that harms are experienced differently by each of us. Learning to understand our differences without assigning value judgments of superiority or inferiority is one of the most significant steps we must take to move past the practice of dehumanizing our "enemies" so that we can take revenge on them. The hierarchical ranking of mere human difference is a legacy of the patriarchal organization of societies and cultures that began to dominate the earth about 10,000 years ago — about the same time humans ran low on herds of large land mammals to hunt and began warring with each other.

Perhaps, in terms of human evolution, our species is at an "adolescent" stage, vacillating repeatedly between a prehistoric, vengeful "childhood" and a not-yet fully defined "adulthood" that understands we cannot continue on our current violent path and survive — but isn’t quite sure what the alternatives are. The work of moving past our addiction to revenge and breaking the cycle of violence requires us to identify and fully understand our unique and evolving role on the planet that balances our existence as both predator and prey — and something beyond.

This article is from Draft NOtices, the newsletter of the Committee Opposed to Militarism and the Draft (www.comdsd.org).


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