The Wicked Witch of the West famously warned Dorothy, “I’ll get you, my pretty, and your little dog too.” The erstwhile Kansan, at that moment, was under the protection of the most powerful sorceress in the Land of Oz, Glinda, The Good Witch of the South, and far beyond harm’s way. But true to her wicked word, the evil enchantress spent the rest of her life chasing and tormenting the youngster and her pet. Getting even for the accidental killing of her partner-in-crime, the Wicked Witch of the East, became an overwhelming obsession.
The Hatfields and McCoys battled for decades. Hamlet fought to the death. And Richard Nixon famously kept lists – all to ensure that the score stayed even. Likewise, the Book of Exodus demands “an eye for an eye” in retaliatory consequence. But does it all really do any good? Are we able to extract anything close to justice by tit-for-tat attacks? Or is our effort to find equilibrium creating a hopelessly unstable arms race, sure to collapse like a too-tall stack of Jenga?
Political leadership seems especially fond of vengeful action. We have come to expect all manner of investigation, special prosecution, and congressional hearing from one election to another — as if our newly elected majority representatives are the Horsemen of the Apocalypse arrived to right all wrongs perpetrated by the unholy who had ruled just before. Perhaps it’s inseparable from power, this desire to punish those who would challenge or resist us. If so, can we break the cycle? Those in charge would have to show restraint. We’ve done it before with nuclear arms treaties signed by our government. But as the Russians once again maraud with reckless abandon, is armed détente more prudent? Still, could a little kindness to our foes impede vengeance from generational reproduction?