Is Revenge Ever Justified?

Is Revenge Ever Justified?


Johnny B. Truant is an author, blogger, and podcaster who, like the Ramones, was long denied induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame despite having a large cult following. Follow him on Twitter @johnnybtruant

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Healthy Roses Sean once told me a revenge story from back when he worked in his father’s flower shop. This story even makes me angry, hearing it third-party and years later.

The shop — which was called Rainbows; insert your rainbow-farting Sean joke here — based a large part of its business on regular orders from a small black book of recurring customers. Those orders formed the backbone of their reputation and profit.

One day, two Rainbows employees decided to leave and open their own  shop. They leased space a block away and initiated an aggressive attempt to drive their former employer out of business. A key part of this strategy was to call the Platts’ best customers one by one from a list they’d spent 15 years gathering, offering to undercut the price those customers had been paying.

POOF! All of the shop’s best clients vanished.

This betrayal would not have been possible had Sean’s father not stepped away from the shop for the first time in forever… not for a vacation, but for a hernia operation that kept him in the hospital. The girls used his convalescence as an opportunity to steal.

He returned after a very short time away to find that his business was mostly gone.

All of this positively infuriated Sean, who was very involved in running the family business and couldn’t help but take it all personally. He was an 18-year old bag of fury at the time. He was also the savvy businessman he is today, and just as ambitious and driven. And he wanted revenge.

revengeHe didn’t just want to restore the store’s business; he wanted to take his enemies down. It wasn’t enough to make sure Rainbows was busy. He had to expand and expand and expand, opening more stores so he could control ALL the local business and snuff the girls from existence.

They had wronged his family and had to pay. 

This was around the time he met his wife, Cindy. She called him, “The Godflower.”

Did the other shop win? Did Rainbows lose?

Did the ex-employees win? Did Sean lose?

Were Sean’s actions justifiable attempts to right a wrong… or the tantrums of an angry kid, amounting to nothing?

Before we get into that, I’d like to take a bit of a detour.

Moral Realism

I have two college degrees. On paper they’re wasted, but given how things turned out — with me a writer, mining my brain for things to say — I figure I’m using both if I’m using either. The first is in molecular biology. The second is philosophy. (That’s the fun one.)

Kids, if you’re in college or are about to go, consider a philosophy degree as a second major or a minor. (Don’t make it your only major. Or if you do, apologize to your parents in advance for wasting all of their money.)

Philosophy is great. At most schools, the philosophy department owns the rooms with the most comfortable chairs and couches. Your job, as a student, is to fill those couches, sip coffee, and learn to spout off like a pretentious asshole. Berets and scarves are optional.

When I was at Ohio State, I spent plenty of time in those rooms. We discussed famous thought problems like the Ship of Theseus (a question of identity, or “ontology” as we call it), the nature of knowledge (hint: the argument starts with the posit that knowledge is “justified true belief” and gets weirder from there), Guy Fawkes (for a reason I can’t recall), and many others. Some of these issues have already appeared in our work (primarily The Beam). More will, I’m sure, rear their heads over time.

PhilosophyPhilosophy is great because there are no right or wrong answers — only well-defended and poorly defended arguments. If you want to write a paper on why the Flying Spaghetti Monster makes the universe run by playing checkers with Hitler’s ghost, you’ll get an A+ — as long as you’ve structured your thoughts in a way nobody can disprove.

(Science doesn’t count as “disproving,” by the way, because philosophy lets you say things like, “But what if we’re all just brains in vats and science doesn’t apply?” You can say it while wearing a scarf and beret.)

I remember writing two pretentious papers for college philosophy courses. The first proposed that maintaining a consistent identity over time was impossible, and that we were all compilations of “time stages” rather than single people persisting day after day. (Incidentally, we have a story coming later this year built on this premise, so stay tuned and watch as we turn that nonsense into reason.)

The second paper was on a doctrine called “moral realism.” The idea is that rather than morality being subjective, certain actions are objectively “right” while others are definitely objectively “wrong.”

You don’t have to believe papers like this when you write them. You just have to be jingoist enough to present theories with a straight face, then back them up with the mental hoop-jumping that passes for philosophical logic. I wrote that latter paper as an exploration, not really believing that anything was clearly right or wrong even in the unknowable big picture.

But as we started work on a morality piece last year, I found myself revisiting my old college argument:  

Is there a true right? Is there a true wrong?
Is there objective good and evil?
Or is it all a lot of relativity and opinion?

Enter Amit, a monk who had no such conflict when he started to remove a man’s skin.


VengeanceSean had been wanting to write a revenge book for a while. He’s obsessed with Kill Bill — and, if I may go all Freud for a second, probably wants to mentally settle the score over that whole flower shop debacle. I have no true revenge fantasies (sometimes I fear I’m not damaged enough for my job), but thought the project sounded fun.

We all have something we’re angry about — some wrong we feel has been perpetuated, on the world if not on us personally — and writing about revenge is a great outlet and less messy than shooting up a Denny’s.

Written revenge is tidy. Because the writer is more or less in charge, you can make sure that things work out exactly how you want them to. Real life is seldom so considerate.

In real life, the best-laid plans usually fail and your cool one-liners (Sean: “I brought you a bouquet … OF JUSTICE!”) always sound stupid. For both of us, the idea to write an idealized revenge story seemed a delightful sort of catharsis.

Our job lets us kill people and no one gets hurt or thinks us mentally ill. It’s a fantastic racket.

Of course, revenge has been done to death, so we crafted Amit to differentiate our story. Amit is from an order of elite “shadow monks” called Sri who train all day to turn their bodies into ultimate killing machines — which, under their Zen community’s moral code, they are forbidden to use to do violence.

The Sri sit in their compound and mediate on the nature of existence; they chant and stroll garden paths while pondering their karma and dharma; they undergo excruciating training to hone the smallest, should-be-involuntary muscles to optimal function. They learn about killing techniques and perfect them on dummies … “for the practice of discipline, because training the body trains the mind.”

That’s an interesting hook, but not the full reason we created Amit. We did it because our monk is a moral realist.

Amit knows all the reasons to avoid violent retribution after a heinous wrong is perpetrated against someone he loves, but because he believes in objective morality, he calmly determines that his order’s decrees no longer make sense… and hence prepares to get his hands dirty. The Sri believe in nonviolence and restraint, but as he muses: “Restraint is to sharpen a sword against a grinding stone every day for the mere act of sharpening it … and then to stand back to admire that useless sword’s sheen while you are subdued by bandits who hold sticks as weapons.”

As we grew to know Amit, we noticed something that was almost troubling.

It’s one thing to motivate a character to do something terrible. It’s one thing to make that character angry, so that he or she will feel compelled to do what is required by the narrative. In the tradition of storytelling, those things make sense, and they give both readers and author permission to step back and essentially say, “I’m along for the ride, but not complicit. This is just one angry guy’s opinion.”

With Amit, we had a character who’d calmly meditated on everything he was about to do, and had considered every angle.

With Amit, we had someone who’d decided — after extensive, non-emotional thought — that the universe demanded he take action, whether he himself wanted to or not.

That bothered us a bit, because it put us right back in the center, in a position where if we weren’t careful, we’d be agreeing that revenge was A-OK.

Still, when we got right down to it, the first part of Amit’s story (which is self-contained, with a neat reverse-chronological narrative, and is available for free as Vengeance) was fun to write.

It’s not like we believed the doctrine of objective rights and wrongs — meaning we could claim that even Amit’s well-reasoned arguments smelled like vapor to us. At that point, it was enough that Amit believed it. As storytellers, we watched and recorded his actions. And Amit did plenty.

Shadow MonkVengeance is a fun romp, if you like things that are incredibly violent and have no mercy. We made Amit engaging and charming (I gave him the jovial personality of the Dalai Lama Tenzin Gyatso, then added a healthy dose of murderous zeal).

Throughout Vengeance, he’s sort of funny while committing atrocities. We made his opponents a bunch of asshole hoods who’d be judged “bad” even by the non-moral-realist reader, and gave Amit a strong, unarguable reason for his pursuit. We wanted to feel good about Amit, you understand … and in order to do that, there had to be no question about whether or not we agreed with his actions, regardless of whether we’d do the same ourselves.

But we couldn’t expect our readers to keep up with the reverse chronology (think Memento) forever, and could only maintain Vengeance’s hyper-violence for so long before it grew tiresome. So when we continued the story in the second part of the larger novel Namaste, we had to give Amit new challenges. For a while, that meant new people to kill. We gave him additional “big bosses” to dispatch in the name of revenge — or, in Amit’s mind, in the name of karmic realignment.

Then we hit a wall, because the body count had climbed disproportionately high.

Worse: we realized that not only were we starting to question the righteousness of Amit’s quest … but so was Amit.


Just like that, the simple elegance of our revenge thriller was gone.

Sean, when he writes with Dave, has a constant complaint. Sean wants to write a book here and there that’s fast and fun, but Dave complicates every storyline. His complaint with me must be similar. I can’t write anything in a straightforward way.

Unicorn Western was supposed to be a stupid ditty about a gunslinger who rides a unicorn and shoots pink smoke, but it became a sprawling fantasy epic that questions the fabric of reality and the balance of good and evil. 

Robot Proletariat was conceived as “Downton Abbey with robots,” but evolved into a tale of insurgence that explores the natures of consciousness and the soul.

Namaste.jpgAnd Namaste — which was supposed to be a kick-ass, adrenaline-fueled martial arts thriller where one man gets bloody revenge in grand cinematic fashion (and without undue moral qualms) — started to feel conflicted. It started to make us both wonder the question that heads this post:

Is revenge ever justified?

From the start we wanted our killer monk to kick unholy ass, take names, and get the satisfaction he deserved. And we wanted to be firmly on his side while he eviscerated his victims. That meant keeping the bad guys bad and the good guys good, just like the old McDonald’s McDLT.

For a while, that’s what we did. You understand why Amit does what he does. You want him to get his revenge. But a full novel is a long time to keep one man slitting throats without thinking too much about it, and when we continued Namaste, that truth punched us hard in the face.

Yes, Amit had lost someone he loved. Yes, it had happened in a manner that was incredibly cruel. But by the time Amit had stacked up a dozen hoods like cordwood, we began to feel like maybe enough was enough.

An eye for an eye … but not 20 for one.

Amit started to wonder:

Am I doing this for karma?
Am I doing it to right a wrong?
Or am I doing it for myself, because I want to?

That’s the sticky question about revenge. Does it actually right the wrongs? Does it ever change anything?

About halfway through our story, our rampaging Zen monk wonders if he’s a moral realist after all. Maybe he’s just another thug, following his own desires rather than the path of the righteous.

Maybe his victims have their own sides of the story. And maybe in doing what he’s done, he’s created widows and widowers and orphans — all of whom will feel differently about things than the killer.

Maybe, Amit starts to wonder, he’s not really that different from those he’s seeking revenge against.

What You Want

Once, in college, I was visiting London during some trouble in Afghanistan. Entering a small store, I ran into an Afghani shopkeeper. He asked if I was American. I told him I was. He said, “I like Americans. Your government? Not so much.”

Just like that, something clicked in my mind. We’re told to hate people because of the country they live in or the group they belong to, but people are people. Even between warring nations, citizens from both could sit to share a pleasant meal. The problem is, that realization raises a question I’d honestly rather not consider. Even if I conjure the worst people I can fathom from the most evil factions doing the most evil deeds, it’s chilling to wonder how much their experience differs from mine.

It’s chilling to wonder, if I were in their shoes, if I’d feel the way they feel, and consider the actions that they consider.

Maybe and maybe not. But if you’re very brave, ask yourself if it’s possible that those who seem wrong and evil might, from the other side of the coin, look like righteous pilgrims to others. Someone like Amit, beset upon by circumstance, on the trail of what feels like righteous revenge.

I no longer believe in moral realism (If I ever did). I defended it “philosophically satisfactorily” in the paper I wrote in college, but even then the idea tasted like sawdust. What we do and believe, we do and believe inside the bubble of our own experience. When something happens, we filter it through our own disposition, past, and prejudices.

Little in this world is ever black and white.

Sean never did drive that other flower shop out of business. It only hurt him, because he wasn’t really trying to right a wrong. He was doing what he felt was right to him — something he wanted, for his own satisfaction. He opened in five stores in three years and eventually had to go back to one. Revenge was just too expensive.

Was the decision to pursue revenge worth it? If it had succeeded and he’d conquered his foe, would it have been?

FlawedI won’t take sides. I can’t bring myself to weigh in on any individual question of revenge. If, like in an old western, someone kills your Pa, is it “right” to pursue his killer? Possibly. Possibly not. Regardless, you’d be doing it for yourself — not for Pa, not for the universe, not for widowed old Ma.

You. Revenge is only (and always) for you.

We love Amit, but still don’t know if we agree with the heinous things he does. I’m not even sure, when all is said and done, if we’re on his side. We tried not be moralists, because morality isn’t objective. It’s subjective, and its meanings cast in shades of gray.

In the end, I think that all we can do is what we always do:

We do our best.


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