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The Cost of Vengeance: The Psychology of the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Part 2

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This blog post is an excerpt from a chapter (co-written with Elaine Shpungin) in the anthology titled The Psychology of the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, published by BenBella. Part 1 was posted previously (see above link).

In Satyagraha Leaflet No. 13, Gandhi wrote: "Victory attained by violence is tantamount to a defeat, for it is momentary." Gandhi was not speaking out of a starry-eyed idealism, but out of the conviction that violence would continue to beget a further and escalating cycle of violence, and that the de-escalation of this cycle begins with individual acts of Satyagraha-a refusal to either bend to the violence of the other or bend to the idea that the other is less human than you are. In this vision-shared by other spiritual leaders, sung and unsung-it is the ability to see one's "enemy" as human that allows us to become more human ourselves, for one of the costs of living only with hatred and fear is a blunting of our own sense of humanity and life force. The idea here is not for Lisbeth to forgive Vanger or Zalachenko or Bjurman, but rather to find a way to meet their lack of compassion with an inner compassion born not of fear or weakness but of the strength it takes to see all human life-even life that has done monstrous things-as sacred.

The Psychology of the Girl With the Dragon Tattoo
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In this view, Lisbeth's brutal behavior prevents her own healing process, for according to Gandhi's philosophy, if we do a monstrous thing to "right" someone else's monstrous behavior, our hands are still stained with blood and our hearts with the inner conviction that a piece of the monster lives in us as well. As Nietzsche wrote in Beyond Good and Evil about those who fight monsters, "If you gaze for long into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you." Lisbeth might be safer for the moment, but she is not left living in a "safe" world or one in which she has reprieve from her inner nightmares and demons.

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There are considerable costs for the vigilantes, but perhaps theirs is a sacrifice made for the greater good. After all, by slaying the dragons, doesn't Lisbeth create a safer kingdom for the rest of us? The answer, as previously, is that alongside the seeming benefit of safety, vigilante justice also holds costs for the rest of us.

First, like the current criminal justice system, vigilante justice precludes the voices of all who are impacted from being weighted in the justice. No human is really an island. Both the actions of Lisbeth and the men involved impact numerous people around them, including other victims and their families. At its most basic, the actions of a single vigilante remove the possibility of having other victims participate in the justice process, at best leaving them with a distant vicarious sense of justice being done. What crime victims often long for, and report finding helpful, is being heard and seen for the fullness of what they endured and having their "why" questions about the harmful action answered.1 This kind of result is far more likely to occur in a more restoratively oriented justice process.2

Even if their complete lack of empathy precludes the possibility of men like Bjurman and Teleborian from taking any responsibility (i.e., showing an understanding of how their actions impacted others) or showing any remorse, it is still often a powerful and healing experience for their victims and/or the victims' families to confront their attackers and have their painful experiences (and the consequences of those experiences) heard and acknowledged. In fact, while it is ideal that the understanding and responsibility come from the offender, victims who have participated in restorative processes-like restorative circles and family group conferences-report that simply having others in their community hear and understand their pain and the impact of the actions on them also has a supportive quality.3 In addition, a process where the voices of multiple affected people are included-including, for instance, the offender's family-and agreements are allowed to emerge that are satisfying to all of these parties, tends to be perceived as both more just and more humane than a process in which justice is carried out by either the state or by independent vigilantes.

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We come now to the final, and perhaps most important, question: Even if a more "humane" action may have some benefit for Lisbeth, would it not simply increase the likelihood of cruelty and abuse by current and future offenders? The argument (we believe it is originally from the Talmud) is often phrased something like this: If we are kind to those to whom we should be cruel, we will ultimately be cruel to those to whom we should be kind.

Cruel and unusual punishment
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The words seem eminently reasonable. We can well imagine the first part leading to the second4 but, as dichotomous options almost always are, the choices are false. Our choices are not limited to either being cruel or being kind. Thus, in the cases of Vanger, Niedermann, and Teleborian, our choices are NOT either to kill them or to buy them lunch and send them on their way. Both Sweden and the United States have a due process that allows an impartial body to determine culpability. If these men are determined to be guilty, we can incarcerate them for life or otherwise limit their freedom-not to punish them (because the goal of punishment is to discourage future similar behavior and we know such men cannot be discouraged), but to ensure our own safety. We should limit their freedom but treat them humanely. Though they might have done monstrous things, we don't need to be monstrous in turn. Despite whatever corruption and bias might exist in the formal system, we should treat these offenders as human beings. The bias and corruption are not irrelevant, and we don't intend to suggest that either should be ignored. Rather, our point is that a broken justice system does not psychologically or ethically justify Lisbeth's cruelty any more than Martin Vanger's painful and abusive upbringing justifies his.

The Talmud quote also suggests that cruelty is a necessity. We don't agree. We don't want to choose between being cruel to someone who deserves it and being cruel to someone who doesn't. Sure, that's an easy choice, but it's set up that way to justify being cruel to someone. This same logic is at the heart of Larsson's novels. Lisbeth's actions of setting her father on fire and sodomizing Bjurman are undeniably cruel, but they are supposedly justified on the grounds that Zalachenko and Bjurman deserved them. We reject the dichotomous options; we don't want to be intentionally cruel to anyone.

We reject, as well, the word "kindness" in this context. Opponents of the death penalty are not advocating kindness; they're advocating fairness and compassion. the not-so-radical idea that this person who may have done some terrible things (let's assume that, as in the Millennium novels, the person's innocence is not in dispute) is still a human being who, like Martin Vanger, may have experienced profound neglect or abuse.

Compassion is not forgiveness, and it certainly is not a lack of accountability. It just means that we believe that no one is born wanting to rape and kill5 and the fact that some person has done so-perhaps multiple times-likely means that his or her life has been filled with so much abuse and pain that he or she was moved to  violence. We don't condone or excuse such a person's choices6 and we don't want to do anything to compromise the safety of others but, along with revulsion, disgust, and fear, we also feel compassion. Consider Martin Vanger. No doubt his genes alone placed him at high risk for deviant criminal behavior-and he did ultimately make the choice to follow in his father's footsteps-but we doubt he would have become the sadist he was if his father hadn't abused him.7

Girl Who Played With Fire
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We are NOT advocating putting the "perpetrator's" needs and welfare before that of the person or persons who were harmed. As readers, we care more about Lisbeth's welfare than about Bjurman's or Niedermann's or Teleborian's. Obviously! The same would be true in a real-life situation. But empathy and compassion are not about priorities, nor are they about compromise. 

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To be compassionate is to recognize everyone's humanity and value everyone's needs. This works because compassion is not a zero-sum game. Feelings of compassion for one person do not lessen one's ability to feel compassion for another8. To the contrary, our personal experience is that, when we are in a more compassionate and loving space, we have more to give to everyone around us.

Compassion is also a choice. When act without compassion (and we sometimes do), it is usually because we have given ourselves permission to do so. When this happens, we almost always later regret it. One reason for this is that our lack of compassion rarely results in outcomes we enjoy. Another reason is that compassion is not charity. To be sure, it can be a tremendous gift to another, but it is a gift to ourselves as well. Just as torture and other acts of cruelty dehumanize both the person tortured and the torturer, so do compassion and empathy reconnect us to our own humanity. As we pointed out earlier, Lisbeth pays a price for her vigilantism. The price is hard to see because, by the time we meet her, she is already hardened and emotionally damaged by her history of abuse and trauma. She has paid a price nevertheless, and the nightmares, the emotional detachment, and the social isolation may only be the tip of the iceberg.9

Ultimately, however, our society's priorities probably come down to safety. Whether we're talking about terrorists, murderers, or rapists, as citizens we want some assurance that those who have hurt us or others before will be unable (or unwilling) to do so again. The safety needs are legitimate, but will cruelty really contribute to our safety? Though the question continues to be debated, there is no compelling evidence that either torture or the death penalty increase safety. To the contrary, in many cases (psychopathy may be an exception), restorative processes can better meet society's (and the victims') safety needs than incarceration or other punishments that fail to address the contextual or interpersonal factors that contributed to the violence in the first place.

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Mikhail Lyubansky, Ph.D., is a teaching associate professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, where he teaches Psychology of Race and Ethnicity, Theories of Psychotherapy, and a graduate-level courses on restorative justice. An autobiographical essay of Mikhail's interests in race relations and basketball is available here.

Since 2009, Mikhail has been studying and working with conflict, particularly via Restorative Circles (a restorative practice developed in Brazil by Dominic Barter and associates) and other restorative responses to conflict. Together with Elaine Shpungin, he now supports schools, organizations, and workplaces in developing restorative strategies for engaging conflict, building conflict facilitation skills and evaluating the (more...)

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