The Chronicle Review

Why We Needed Bin Laden Dead

Revenge as a biological imperative

Chris Kleponis, Agence France-Presse, Getty Images

People celebrate the announcement of the death of Osama bin Laden at the White House in Washington, May 2.
May 05, 2011

"Ding-dong. The witch is dead!" "Which old witch?" We all know the answer: that bin Laden witch. And who did it? Jubilant crowds in Washington, New York City, and elsewhere knew that, too, as they chanted "U.S.A., U.S.A.!"

For all our personal abhorrence of violence, we shared some of their relief. To be sure, Osama's demise brings attendant risks, not least the prospect of retaliation from Al Qaeda and its sympathizers, furthering yet another rejuvenated cycle of killing. But there are gains as well: getting rid of a genuine malefactor who threatened not just the West, but also the peace of the world; making it clear that innocent Americans cannot be attacked with impunity (thereby reinforcing, it might be hoped, a kind of nonnuclear deterrence); and—not least—insulating the Obama administration against claims of being weak or half-hearted in defending the country.

But as for the high-minded claims about "justice," we're not so sure. More likely, something deeper, more primitive and potentially more troubling motivates the near-universal glee (at least in the United States) at bin Laden's death. Scholars since Plato have argued endlessly about the meaning of justice, and will doubtless continue to do so. Increasingly, however, a biological perspective suggests that the craving for justice is intimately tied to another cross-cultural universal: the demand for revenge.

It's an old dance—denying the latter while insisting on the former—whereas in fact, a yearning for revenge, or something very much like it, has a well-established evolutionary pedigree. At its heart is what might be called "passing the pain along": Victims respond to their distress by victimizing someone else, when possible, of course, the initial perpetrator. It's the original Three R's: retaliation (immediate tit for tat), revenge (payback after a delay, and often magnified in intensity), and redirected aggression (taking it out on a third party, often an innocent bystander).

The underlying biology of the Three R's has become increasingly clear. After being attacked—like America was on 9/11—victims suffer "subordination stress," a physiological syndrome that includes hypertension, increased cortisone secretion and other adrenal effects, reduced sex-hormone levels, and possible ulcers. Of particular significance is that when such victims avail themselves of the opportunity to get back at their victimizer, their stress is substantially alleviated. In short, they minister to their own distress by passing their pain on to someone else. That has been found for captive rats, free-living baboons, and also Homo sapiens.

Even as the underlying physiology of the Three R's has become increasingly clear, another question emerges: Why? Why should natural selection have designed so many organisms to respond to injury by causing yet more injury? (This question is especially acute, incidentally, in cases of redirected aggression, which, for all its serious mayhem, brings to mind the old Three Stooges routine, in which Moe hits Larry who turns around and slugs Curly.) The answer appears to be that in any social species, individuals are exquisitely sensitive to a variant on Lenin's famous question: Who, whom? Who has done what to whom? And has he or she gotten away with it?

Once one has been successfully attacked, not only has that individual suffered an immediate cost (injury plus likely loss of whatever resource may have precipitated the attack), but he or she also runs the risk of losing social standing. Animal studies confirm that in the aftermath of an attack, if victims refrain from responding—if they neither retaliate, redirect aggression, nor get revenge—they are then more likely to be subsequently attacked by others in their group. It seems, therefore, that passing along one's pain is a way of signaling,"I may have been victimized this time, but don't get the wrong idea: I'm not a patsy." If so, then natural selection could well have engineered subordination stress and the widespread tendency to diminish it by retaliating, redirecting, and/or revenging as a means of salvaging as much as possible from a bad situation. There is, accordingly, a certain cruel logic to the Three R's. As Mario Puzo put it in The Godfather, "Accidents don't happen to people who take accidents as a personal insult."

Note: Just because revenge appears to be natural and sometimes even functional does not mean that it is laudable. But when people speak, for example, in highfalutin terms about seeing justice done, they may well be saying less about balancing the cosmic scales than about balancing their own physiological stress, as well as righting an unconscious perception of their own social imbalance. That, we suspect, is the real redress people seek when passing along their pain after having been aggrieved ... but naked revenge is unseemly, so we call it the pursuit of justice instead.

"Justice begins with compassion and caring," wrote the philosopher Robert C. Solomon, "but it also involves, right from the start, such 'negative' emotions as envy, jealousy, indignation, anger, and resentment, a keen sense of having been personally cheated or neglected, and the desire to get even." It is payback with a purpose. In large measure, the quest for justice emerges from the pain of injustice. What, then, is punishment?

Some see punishment as the embodiment of justice itself, not some sort of bio-psycho-social expediency; hence, to justify the punitive impulse as serving deterrence, enhancing social safety, or responding to physiological, as well as evolutionary, influences is to demean with trite practicality an act that is ethically pure and valid unto itself. Crime requires punishment; justice is the punishment of injustice. As John Stuart Mill wrote in his classic, Utilitarianism, "We do not call anything wrong unless we mean to imply that a person ought to be punished in some way or other for doing it."

And punishment implies pain. The same powerful forces that demand revenge urge that only the pain of others can allay our own distress, that only someone else's suffering can soak up our blood. We dearly wish it were not true, but the likelihood is that natural selection is at the root of most demands for punishment: It acts "proximally," or directly, via subordination stress, as well as "adaptively," via the evolutionary payoff of announcing one's self as capable of inflicting painful payback upon those who have harmed us. The yearning to exact a toll on the wrongdoers is so powerful and widespread that one might even equate the degree of civilization in a society with the extent to which pain-passing is administered by civil authority rather than by the aggrieved party. Thus, a reason for having police, laws, and prisons (and even executioners) is to prevent wronged and vengeful people from taking the law into their own hands.

"Vengeance is mine, I will repay, saith the Lord," not so much to legitimize vengeance per se as to reassure those who have been "done wrong" that their need for violent revenge will eventually be satisfied.

According to H.L. Mencken, there is an abiding pleasure that comes from inflicting pain on wrongdoers, a relief and release that lies at the heart of punishment in general, and of capital punishment in particular. There is, nonetheless, something uniquely dismaying in the exorbitant glee shown by so many Americans in the immediate aftermath of bin Laden's death, just as there was in the celebration by Al Qaeda sympathizers after 9/11, and in the oafs and thugs who revel in TV reports of a state-sanctioned execution. Mencken maintained that crime victims and members of society at large are concerned only indirectly with deterring other criminals when they call for the death penalty. The thing they crave primarily is the satisfaction of seeing the criminal actually before them suffer as he made them suffer. What they want is the peace of mind that goes with the feeling that accounts are squared. Until they get that satisfaction, they are in a state of emotional tension, and hence unhappy. The yearning is not noble, but it is universal.

As biologically influenced universals go, pain-passing in general (whether manifested as retaliation, redirected aggression, or revenge) is deeply troubling, in a way that other such universals (for example, metabolizing, reproducing, sleeping) are not.

Thus, the Three R's emphasize the disconnect between what is "natural" and what is morally desirable. Although many ethical systems legitimize retaliation, if only as a form of self-defense, even that form of payback is discouraged by the better angels of many religions, like, for instance, Christianity. The more we understand the biological underpinnings of the Three R's, the more can we understand why turning the other cheek is so difficult (to err is human, to forgive, supine?). But that doesn't make retaliation admirable.

Redirected aggression and revenge deserve even greater condemnation, if only because the former aims at innocent bystanders and the latter has been responsible for unending cycles of violent retribution, a history of horrors that truly sapient Homo ought someday to outgrow.

"My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die!" Myriad moviegoers thrilled (and laughed) to those lines in the film The Princess Bride. But relatively few are likely to recall this morphing of Montoya's mantra, spoken after the estimable revenge-seeker finally achieved his retributive goal: "I have been in the revenge business so long, now that it's over, I don't know what to do with the rest of my life."

In killing Osama bin Laden, the United States may or may not have achieved justice; we have definitely obtained a measure of revenge. But it remains to be seen what we shall do, and what others will do, with the rest of our lives and theirs.

David P. Barash is an evolutionary biologist and professor of psychology at the University of Washington and a blogger for Brainstorm. Judith Eve Lipton is a biologically oriented psychiatrist. Their most recent book, Payback: Why We Retaliate, Redirect Aggression, and Seek Revenge, has just been published by Oxford University Press.