Picks and Pans Review: Wild Justice

updated 02/06/1984 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/06/1984 AT 01:00 AM EST

by Susan Jacoby

"Justice is a legitimate concept in the modern code of civilized behavior. Vengeance is not." Thus does Jacoby summarize her provocative study on the meaning of revenge—the "wild justice" of the book's title. The criminal justice system itself maintains the assumption that vengeance is dirty and disturbing—something nasty in the woodshed. For example, during the 1972 deportation hearing in New York of Nazi war criminal Hermine Ryan, victims of Ryan's barbarism testified against her but were compelled by present-day convention to deny any desire for revenge. Jacoby, whose earlier books include The Possible She, a feminist argument, holds that the principle of just retribution has fallen further victim to the notion that revenge is the unsavory weapon of the weak. Yet revenge, she insists, is a basic human impulse that, when thwarted by the legal system, erupts in the kind of vigilante justice depicted in the Death Wish movies. Though she opposes the death penalty ("It shifts the focus from the crime to the punishment"), Jacoby maintains that retribution should play an especially explicit role in the punishment of murderers. For to ignore or deny the desire for vengeance, she warns, is to make us more vulnerable to the murderous impulses that "always lie beneath the surface of civilization—beneath, but never so deep that they can safely be ignored." (Harper & Row, $17.95)

From Our Partners