06 May 2011


REVENGE. The assassination of Osama bin Laden has provided the impetus for a fascinating round of questions and soul-searching regarding justice vs. vengence within the context of our response to (or participation in) terrorism. Without doubt, bin Laden had to be stopped. The question rises, could we have neutralized him without a bullet to his head? Could we have captured him, brought him to trial at the International Court of Justice in the Hague (as we did with Saddam Hussein, who was found guilty of crimes against humanity and executed) .... and in the interim, could we have interrogated bin Laden regarding the al-Qaeda network and his past and future crimes? We'll never know. Perhaps, as some suggest, he was a rabid dog who had to be put down in order to save lives. I make no judgment in asking questions about the operation, but I do ask questions.

Of relevance to our thinking on this is our evolving understanding about the human impulse toward revenge. Katherine Harmon, in Does Revenge Serve an Evolutionary Purpose?, explores the distinction between justice and revenge, and the relevance of each to the death of bin Laden. Here is a teaser quote from her Scientific American piece --

"Spontaneous patriotic chants and flag-waving crowds were sparked by word that Osama bin Laden had been killed earlier this week. Despite the man's loathed reputation as the mastermind of the September 11 terrorist attacks, the jubilation over bin Laden's death raises the question: why the celebration? Was it relief, a sense of justice, or the simple pleasure of revenge?

"As draconian as lethal retribution might seem, science has shown that the human brain can take pleasure in certain kinds of revenge. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans have revealed that thinking about revenge activates the reward center -- where the feel-good neurotransmitter dopamine is lodged -- in much the same way that sweet foods or even drugs can.

"But the news also brought out some more jumbled sentiments, including sadness for the reminder of the past tragedy and ambivalence about the intentional killing of another person. With all of this gray area -- colored in this instance by politics, history, and the sheer scale of the international stage -- is there a way to understand revenge in a basic, biological way?"

Harmon goes on to answer that very question, in a psychological inquiry that is fascinating and accessible to any reader. I recommend the discussion highly.

In a more moral vein, there is a quote attributed to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. which has gone viral on the Internet. It reads, "I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy. Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that."

What an eloquent, moving reminder of our better natures. Dr. King was no stranger to threats, to violence, to imprisonment, to the systematic injustice, torture and death inflicted on blacks in America. Yet he stood by the philosophy of non-violent change, right up to the moment of his own assassination. The quote has been attacked as being fake. Penn Jillette investigated, inquiring with the staff at Stanford's Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute, and found that although not a literal exerpt from a King speech, the quote is, in its essence, legitimate. You can read more about the controversy here.

POP-UPS. Special thanks to my friend Bill in Chicago for sending me the link to Six Amazing Pop-up Paper Sculptures. I cannot begin to imagine the planning and meticulous creation of these astonishing constructs -- they make origami look like finger-painting. But that's probably not a fair comparison. Like prose and poetry, each has its own virtues and strengths. What a wondrous, creative world we inhabit -- when we aren't killing each other.

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