Having spent countless hours reading about the various ways people torment each other in revenge tragedies, I've learned that family members don't often fare very well. Butchered as pawns in a revenger's scheme, or accidentally taken down in the conflagration of violence that concludes such spectacles, those bonded to villains in name only bear the full brunt of the sins of their fathers, so to speak.
Unfortunately, this cruel calculation of violence against guiltless victims doesn't only exist in literature. On Wednesday, December 2, viewers of the morning show "Fox & Friends" found themselves facing such strategies head on. Calling in from "the top of one of his skyscrapers" to discuss foreign policy, the ever-controversial presidential candidate Donald Trump followed up on his earlier promise to "bomb the shit" out of ISIS, arguing that, as President, he would not only annihilate the terrorist organization, but would massacre their families as well. In his words:
And the other thing with the terrorists - you have to take out their families ... They care about their lives, don't kid yourselves. They say they don't care about their lives. But you have to take out their families.
Probably contravening international law, Trump proposes we combat terrorism by systematically murdering known terrorists' parents, siblings, spouses, children, and so on, without clarifying where to stop on the family tree. The strategy apparently works by scaring off future terrorists through its dramatic display of power. It's Trump's characteristic bravado and yet another performance of his kick-ass-and-take-names masculinity we've all come to expect from him.
His hyperbolic "take no prisoners" rhetoric follows almost to the letter the classic scenario of one of our most enduring and popular narratives: the revenge tragedy. In stories of revenge, revengers often wreak havoc on both their adversaries and their adversaries' families. The story of Atreus' revenge on Thyestes is one of the better known examples: Atreus, seeking revenge against Thyestes (don't ask), serves an unwitting Thyestes the quartered and roasted bodies of his three sons, a fact which Atreus gleefully relays to Thyestes mid-bite. During the great vogue for revenge plays in Renaissance England, stage revengers occasionally followed Atreus' lead in executing the children of their opponents, sometimes with cannibalism, as in the gory banquet that ends Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus, and sometimes without it, as in the smearing of young Julio's blood around the tombs of Marston's Antonio's Revenge. Now, there are plenty of revengers who still come out heroic, but murdering innocents will likely keep you out of this club.
But all of these stories contain escalating violence. Revengers keep upping the ante, even if not reaching the point of killing their victim's blood-relatives. The often-used monetary metaphor of "payback" for revenge is really payback with interest (or, as Seneca's Atreus puts it, violence that "exceeds" the original crime). Violence begets more violence begets more violence ad infinitum. As John Webster, one of Shakespeare's contemporaries, puts it, nothing can feed the "famine of vengeance."
Herein lie revenge's central paradoxes. First, revenge assumes that a person can set right what an adversary has set wrong: you murdered my father, now your death will pay back the loss. Yet, the impossibility of "equaling" or "repaying" one life for another is made worse by the obvious asymmetry between the lives in question. In contrast, the killing of another innocent victim better replicates the original offense, which was itself inflicted on innocent victims. And when revengers so closely reproduce these original offenses, they become virtually identical with the very villains they seek to annihilate.
Now, to the second paradox. Revenge promises closure, or satiety, yet it tends to have the opposite effect. On the one hand, revenge perpetuates itself: one foul act deserves another. On the other hand, revengers themselves never seem to feel satisfied, even without fearing reprisal. The truth is, revenge can be a pleasurable release, especially for those in mourning.
Of course, Trump isn't recommending we cannibalize anybody, nor is he even labeling the prospective killings as revenge: it's all just policy, he might say. Yet, if Trump's policies follow from the same logic behind revenge -- annihilate our adversary and destroy everything they love -- they also suffer from revenge's own contradictions. Trump's fantasies of violence will no doubt continue to escalate throughout this campaign, following as they are the ever-insatiable logic of revenge. His policies have certainly seduced many constituents, as any good revenge play would. "Taking out their families" may be part of the machismo of showing ISIS who's boss, but, as in revenge stories, these killings would mainly succeed at making us indistinguishable from our adversaries, and in increasing rather than decreasing injustice throughout the world. It leaves only villains on stage.