The law of talion is one of the oldest codes that for centuries has been giving societies ethical structure. By it, the wrongdoer should be punished in the same kind and to a similar degree to his crime: it is a cruel, inhuman form of justice, overwritten by modern codes of conduct and philosophical views. It is still the way many individuals today conceive of justice. Is this instinct for revenge coded in our genetics?
Reaction to crime is shaped by laws and modern thinking; yet, in a violent world, taking up arms seems the quickest way to satisfy anger. Recent events involving gun violence and racial conflicts in the US have left us wondering about ethics in our societies. Doesn’t the tendency of vendetta put us on the same level with those who hurt us? Aren’t reflection and rationality what differentiate us from other species, and what foster a better society?
Activism is a steady alternative to retaliation, a form of non-violent fighting to effect social change, with many platforms and organisations dedicated to put an end to injustice. Black Lives Matter is a notable platform campaigning against racism and racial violence, within spectrums of gender, sexuality, and social class. They also strive for broadening the conversation with regards to state violence, in order to expose all the ways by which black people are left defenceless by a faulty justice system.
Even if a powerful tool, activism takes time and effort to change things. For example, the Black Lives Matter movement was launched in 2012, renewing the debate of the racial segregation in the US. However, very little has been achieved so far, with black people losing their lives weekly to police brutality. Those accountable for these murders keep being acquitted of all charges, deepening the gap of inequality. When activism fails, do people slide back to an instinctive form of justice, when their country fails them?
When a peaceful movement appears insufficient, people seem to react without filter, allowing their inner natural tendencies to take hold of reason. Violence as retaliation for violence is the mark of the powerless, of those who feel the law cannot successfully defend them. Revenge is a syndrome of lack of trust, and of a failing system. A Black Lives Matter protest was organised in Dallas, in July 2016, following the killing of two black men by police officers. The initially peaceful demonstration turned into a massacre, when Micah Xavier Johnson shot and killed five officers. Did he carefully plan this attack, or did he lose control over his own mind and body, blinded by anger, and overtaken by the instinct of revenge?
Baton Rouge, Louisiana, has been the location of a similar act of violence. Former Marine Gavin Long gunned down three police officers, allegedly for the same reason: revenge. Irrational anger inspires irrational actions, which spread like an unyielding virus in a body too weak to fight it. Much of the violence we witness today is sourced in a systemic failure of society; individuals who have long been silenced, wronged, discriminated against, or ignored allow their reason to fall prey to basic instincts and damaging anger. Mass shootings and the now infamous figure of the lone mass murderer are endemic of deeper social issues, and a way to stop violence is to address these issues. Racism, power abuse, poverty, and injustice – they all inform our present tragedy, and cloud our progress. They must, therefore, be addressed in a way that puts individuals back in control of their lives, restoring their dignity and reason.