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Narratives of Vengeance

A punishment story which employs a narrative of vengeance is one that explicitly adopts the sentencing rationale of retribution as justification for harsh punishment. Punishment (particularly the death sentence and life without the opportunity of parole) is deemed morally appropriate because of the heinous nature of the crime (Ellsworth and Gross 1994; Grasmick et al. 1993). The punishment stories that use a vengeance narrative thus tend to be stories about violent crime as opposed to misdemeanours, and more specifically they tend to be stories about capital crimes. The offender is depicted as deserving of death to recompense the death of their victim; an eye for an eye (Aladjem 2008). However, Sarat (2002) suggests that a narrative of vengeance is not the same as a narrative of retribution, and that vengeful sentiment has replaced retributive rationales in cultural representations of punishment and—to an extent— within the trial process itself.

Sarat (2002) uses Nozick’s (1981) five-part distinction between vengeance and retribution to support his thesis. Firstly Nozick suggests that vengeance can be sought for any harm rather than just the violation of law. Secondly, vengeance has no limit to its severity whereas retribution is proportionate to the severity of the original unlawful act. Thirdly, vengeance is personal whereas the agent of retribution will have no personal ties to the victim. Fourthly, vengeance needs no generality, yet retribution adheres to replicable rules. And finally, vengeance involves a particular emotionality and subsequent ‘irrationality’, whereas retribution remains logical, rational and reasoned.

Similarly, Garland (2010, pp. 56-7) makes a distinction between the ‘personal’ attributes of vengeance and the ‘rationalised’ nature of retribution. He suggests that when the family of a murder victim speak publicly about their desire for punishment, they are authorised both to imply they may take ‘pleasure’ in punishment and can make pleas for ‘excess’. For example, family members may express their desire to see an inmate suffer by advocating execution by electric chair rather than lethal injection. Conversely, to employ a narrative of retribution is to forbid these two expressions; the agent of retribution will take no pleasure or satisfaction from the act of punishing and they will have no desire for excessive cruelty. Again, we see the distinction being made between the personal reaction (which will likely be subjective and could be vengeful) and the professional reaction (which should remain objective and therefore more retributive). State actors are thus, more often than not, careful to avoid ostentatious shows of grief and emotionality, preferring instead to appear removed and impartial.

Viewing death penalty films as cultural performances, Sarat (1999b) argues that by employing a narrative of vengeance (as opposed to retribution), the films effectively displace questions about the legitimacy of state killing. Sarat illustrates his argument through an analysis of the films Dead Man Walking (1995) and Last Dance (1996). He concludes that the audience in both films is positioned as the jury in the sentencing phase of the trial, and is encouraged to judge the defendant’s (and by inference the victim’s) worth. In both films the main character is executed, yet their execution raises few questions about the legitimacy of the death penalty as both are guilty and both eventually accept responsibility for their crimes.

Moreover, the execution, whilst carried out by professionals, is a personal event. The audience, at some points situated behind the glass partition looking out onto the condemned man lying on the gurney, become voyeurs to someone else’s voyeurism (Sarat 1999b). Throughout the execution scene of Dead Man Walking the past is entwined with the present; images of the crime create a morbid juxtaposition of deaths. The victim’s death is brutal and bloody; the killer’s serene and painless. The visceral and emotive reminder of the criminal act introduces an emotional tone to the scene of the execution using visual cues and communicative gestures. In Garland’s (2010) terms, the audience is encouraged to demand excess. The images of bloody bodies disallow sympathy for the condemned and the viewer is encouraged to sympathise with the victim’s family as opposed to the offender upon whom their gaze falls.

Yet David Dow has come to a different conclusion by examining the discourses employed in both death penalty films and documentaries. A Texas appellate lawyer who has represented over one hundred capital defendants, Dow (2000) analysed the documentary films Fourteen Days in May (1987), the story of a former inmate (Johnson) of death row in Mississippi, and The Thin Blue Line (1988), which deals with a former inmate (Adams) of death row in Texas. Adams was released and Johnson was executed, but there were significant concerns about Johnson’s guilt post-execution. Dow also considered two Hollywood fictional movies, Dead Man Walking (1995) and The Green Mile (1999), concluding firstly that the Hollywood depictions portray the death penalty with more accuracy than the documentaries, and secondly that while both the films and the documentaries employ narratives of vengeance, the presence of such a narrative does not have the bracketing effect that Sarat (1999b) describes. In other words, according to Dow (2000), evoking emotional scripts of grief in an attempt to encourage the audience to desire harsh punishment does not automatically undermine attempts to question the legitimacy of capital punishment more broadly. Whereas Sarat (1999b) sees Hollywood films as bracketing structural questions of legitimacy through the use of personalised victim-centred narratives which employ vengeance, Dow (2000) suggests the documentaries bracket those questions more overtly through avoidance, and the Hollywood movies confront those questions (although they fail to answer them).

More specifically, the documentaries analysed by Dow (2000) focused on death row inmates thought to be innocent. By examining cases in which guilt was questioned the documentaries were thus expressing concerns about the legitimacy of capital punishment from a procedural perspective (what if we execute an innocent person?). What these documentaries failed to do then, was to problematise the death penalty from a moral perspective (should we execute in cases of definite guilt?). The narratives used by the documentaries to speak about punishment could thus be read in two ways; first, the audience may conclude that the death penalty is an inappropriate form of punishment due to its irreversibility, or second, viewers may conclude that the penalty itself is defensible but the processes by which guilt is determined should undergo reform. In short, Dow (2000) argues that the death penalty Hollywood films actually represent a more accurate portrayal because the questions raised relate to the guilty as opposed to the innocent. In Dead Man Walking the character is guilty and accepts responsibility; in The Green Mile the main character is innocent, but those around him on death row are guilty. Thus the films have the opportunity to question the legitimacy of death as punishment (irrespective of guilt or innocence) whereas in contrast the documentaries—which focus on potentially innocent inmates—do not.

That is not to suggest that Dow (2000) did not identify a discourse of vengeance in death penalty films; instead, he is proposing that these types of (film) stories provide an accurate portrayal of the emotions felt. Many who oppose the death penalty can still empathise with a family’s desire for vengeance; people can support the death penalty in theory but not in the way it is practised. Similarly, O’Sullivan (2003) suggests that Sarat’s (1999b) argument (desires for vengeance displace a discussion about structural inadequacies) is too simplistic, instead suggesting that while the films do tell stories using narratives of vengeance, they simultaneously show inadequacies within the trial process such as ineffective council and institutionalised racism. In short, whilst narratives of vengeance (as opposed to retribution) are often present in death penalty films and are ultimately used in support of execution, their presence alone does not automatically bracket questions of procedure.

Moreover, narratives of vengeance are not restricted to (re)presen- tations of the death penalty; they can be found in cultural products associated with various other criminal justice issues. For example, according to Holbrook and Hill (2005) the recent popularity of crime dramas has encouraged a focus on the pursuit of the guilty with little attention paid to due process and the rights of the offender. Crime and punishment is viewed through the ‘lens of revenge’, encouraging what Aladjem (2008) calls a ‘creation myth’ about what justice really is and how one might go about obtaining it. Cultural representations of ‘getting justice’ have become infused with the language of emotion; narratives of anger, grief, indignation and vengefulness have all become part of the crime and punishment story. Rather than portraying the purpose of punishment as a rational requirement to penalise the guilty, crime dramas tend to allow irrational, vengeful sentiments to coexist with (and often overpower) portrayals of punishment as a state-sanctioned, impartial and objective reaction to the harm committed.

Aladjem (2008) traces the history of American vengeance in order to show how it has become embedded within American criminal justice and further argues that populist punitiveness is reinforced by cultural performances related to punishment. Exploring crime dramas, news media stories, theatre and literature, Aladjem (2008) finds that popular cultural representations misrepresent and ultimately distort the proper purpose of punishment. The criminal justice system becomes understood in personal terms, as a forum in which feelings of vengeance can be diffused through the infliction of pain in punishment. Concerns regarding due process and offenders’ rights become overpowered by a public sentiment of ‘vindictiveness’ and a desire to see the offender suffer. The focus on individual cases deflects audience attention away from structural issues such as ineffective council or racial bias in sentencing. In short, by framing the story in this way the audience is encouraged, invited even, to interpret any concern of arbitrariness—legitimate or otherwise—as a last ditch attempt by the guilty to avoid what they rightfully deserve (George and Shoos 2005).

Indeed, some have argued that since the late 1970s American punishment practices have become more emotive, volatile, contradictory and ostentatious (Karp 1998; McAlinden 2010; O’Malley 1999; Pratt 2000; Sarat 1999a; Simon 2001). Examples cited include boot camps, three strikes legislation, increased use of execution, chain gangs, and a number of other policies relating to the public disclosure of offences once an individual has been released from prison (primarily sexual and/or violent offences). Together these polices have been termed ‘shame penalties’ (Karp 1998) or ‘expressive extra-legal sanctions’ (Pratt 2000), with Kohm (2009) suggesting that the primary goal of such policies is to humiliate the offender while simultaneously affirming the legitimacy of state power. Furthermore, Altheide (1992) argues that the more emotive styles of punishing have primarily gained their meaning through media discourse, with the portrayal of shame penalties in popular culture indicating a more general shift in public sensibilities, a shift which is characterised by an increased desire to celebrate cruelty, hurt and humiliation (Kohm 2009; Presdee 2000).

However, narratives of vengeance, vindictiveness, cruelty or humiliation are not entirely detached from the fear narratives discussed earlier in this chapter. Bauman (2006) suggests that ‘fear’ is just one product of what he terms ‘liquid modern times’. He argues that by viewing reality TV shows about policing such as Cops, or documentaries about corrections such as Americas Hardest Prisons, or indeed reading news articles about violent crime, the audience is exposed to the ‘rugged realities’ of life. For example, reality TV programmes such as To Catch a Predator spectacularly depict danger and contribute to a ‘derivative fear’; the sense that we are forever vulnerable to vague threats that are unavoidable and often undetectable. Bauman (2006) argues it is this sense of vulnerability, most acute when the offences are sexual, that encourages the audience to express desires for vengeful punishments which tend to be more severe.

Similarly, Young (1999) has argued that economic and cultural globalising processes have contributed to a ‘widespread resentment and tension’ which ultimately transform feelings of simple displeasure (a sense of unfairness) into desires for vindictiveness. Late modernity, Young (1999, 2007) argues, is characterised by economic and ontological insecurity, and that insecurity consequently signalled the return of exclusionary policies aimed at anything perceived to be deviant or transgressive. Within this cultural climate, punishment becomes framed in terms of vindictiveness rather than rationality (Young 2007) . In short, shows such as To Catch a Predator contribute to the perception of increased insecurity and by symbolically linking rituals of exclusion and humiliation with a feeling of reduced threat, supporting more emotive and punitive punishment is portrayed as ‘a tangible way to fight back against the formless fear of ... predators in our midst’ (Kohm 2009, p. 200).

The trend toward more emotive and ostentatious punishment thus cannot be viewed without some consideration of the blurring of boundaries between reality and representation; fact and fiction become confused in cultural products such as news reporting, documentaries and reality TV shows (Pratt 2000). The spectacle of punishment and the fears associated with vulnerability become framed as entertainment; humiliation, vindictiveness and vengeance are positioned at the centre of crime and punishment cultural narratives (Bauman 2006; Kohm 2009; Lynch 2004; Presdee 2000; Sarat 1999a). In short, within the cultural life of punishment, narratives of fear and vengeance are not mutually exclusive and one is often employed to (re)affirm the necessity of the other. However, fear and vengeance are not the only narratives employed within cultural scripts about harsh punishment—cultural life scholars have also found narratives of ‘punishment as closure’ being deployed in highly specific ways.

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