Revenge and Forgiveness Part I: Scapegoating Paradigms for Massacres and Other Tragedies

Police_at_Sandy_HookWhat happened at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., touched our hearts and shook our brains. We could all empathize so completely, yet could do so little, as individuals, to act on that understanding and our compassion. Perhaps that feeling of impotence is why this time around the debate on how to address the epidemic of child murders has lasted longer than usual and continues to gather strength.

Evaluating our policies on guns and mental health services is a good, practical place to begin the political debate. Both guns and mental health touch difficult places in our national psyche—the place of fear. Guns and madness are all about fear, fear of others and fear of what’s inside of us.

Which brings me to revenge and forgiveness. The primary impetus for mass killings of Newtown’s kind is revenge. Revenge lies deep in our human, and mammalian, nature, arising most probably from an evolutionary value that assured the survival of groups, but also with a psychological value that allows individuals to struggle with and survive huge personal traumas.

Revenge is an emotion uniquely characterized by its obsessive longevity. It may last without letup through an individual’s lifetime, or in the case of nations, families, and other subgroups for many centuries. Literature and folklore are rife with tales of familial revenge.

Revenge is also almost always correlated with being scapegoated, the emotion that emerges from being the victim of a group process—scapegoating is born of and actualized through the group dynamic—which in turn leads to humiliation, alienation, banishment, even death. The temporal dynamics of the scapegoating–revenge cycle are similar, whether they occur in a schoolyard, a nation, or across continents.

The child who is ostracized from his school group because of race, gender, mental illness, and a myriad of other reasons and characteristics will continue to feel the trauma for months or years afterward. Jews still feel the horror of the Holocaust, and Afro-Americans still feel the painful effects of slavery a century and a half later. Years of work and remembrance among the victims of these historic examples of scapegoating may have transmuted the wellspring of revenge into a veiled symbol of violence: the raised gloved hand of a black Olympic medalist or Israel’s national motto “Never Again” among them. Yet the feeling of revenge lives on in these symbols and gives them power.

Adam Lanza, the 20-year-old gunman who killed 20 children and eight adults in a few minutes of horrific violence, felt revenge and acted upon it. He was unable or unwilling to transform his feelings of revenge into something useful, for himself and for others. Lanza’s proximity to guns, the ineffectiveness (or lack of resources) of mental health interventions, and so many other outer realities are relevant factors—and far easier to analyze and blame than what stirs the fires of revenge, scapegoating, humankind’s primal insult. We must pay attention to that hidden factor: The reality of Lanza’s inner experience, the reality of his need for revenge, is the prime mover for the massacre. We must understand that reality to truly help the Lanzas  of our world and to protect the innocent.

Next post: Part II. Adam Lanza as Scapegoat 


  1. The elephant in the living room is human species violence. And more specifically, male violence. All this talk about gun violence, and yes scapegoating, and sexism and harm to the planet; all primarily enacted by the male of the species. The dominant sex. Yes, women carry violence too, but why don’t we point the finger at the male of the species, and their terrible capacity for violence. It is taboo to speak f it – it is just accepted – nothing can be done. Well I say crap to that. We need to discuss it. Rape is horrifying. Male adolescents going nuts and shooting children is horrifying. Male corporate dominance in plundering the Earth and displacing Indigenous people is horrifying. Male overpopulation in prisons is horrifying. The VAST MAJORITY of ALL violence and yes scapegoating in our species, in every society on Earth, is perpetuated and continues to be enacted by the male of our species. Why don’t we analyze that? How can we articulate that discussion?

    • drscapegoat says:

      I agree with you that males do seem to be more violent than females. Judging from mammalian behavior that’s probably biologically programmed. And perhaps it’s also about which sex has the power up till now. Now that more (but not enough) women are becoming leaders they are all not necessarily peaceful. Famed women psychologist Margaret Rioch, an early feminist, frequently told me that in her experience women are far more violent than men in groups, particularly the moment the definition of violence is broadened to include non-physical abuse.
      Scapegoating should be separated from violence. Scapegoating is always a group phenomena and the group process of scapegoating begins subtly and is often led by women. Mothers usually set the initial scapegoating parameters in the family including the way they treat husbands and children. Within the family boys and fathers are often the scapegoats which adds to their violence and revengefulness. (See my posting on Adam Lanza.) Young women get all excited about sending Jonny off to war and lots of women are turned on by male bravado, violent athleticism etc.
      Hopefully this separation of violence and scapegoating is one way to “articulate” the discussion you want.

      Thank you for your thoughts, Dr. Scapegoat.

      • Thank you for the reply. The comment men SEEM to be more violent than woman, oh dear! The facts overwhelmingly support men are more violent than women – why is that so hard to accept and admit (I know we could review mammalian species and go on and on)? That is my point! Then the justification of including verbal violence that women utilize (oftentimes expertly so) in working to balance the – ok – “assumption” about men being more violent than woman is sad to say, an obvious male, and yes, educated adult toned response. One sentence is especially sad: “Young women get all excited about sending Jonny off to war and lots of women are turned on by male bravado, violent athleticism etc.” I dare say billions of women over the course of history, curse war and sending their sons, brothers and husbands off to be maimed, to rape, and to die. I have seen friends and mothers with wrenching misery over several wars, and the women fighting to be proud, and hopeful – trying to overcome the senselessness of our recent U.S. (Viet Nam – Iraq) wars. Men ARE more tangibly violent than women. And yes, violence lurks in all of us. I say we look at the genetic scientific fact – that survival of our species has evolved and mandated in our genes that men are more violent than women. We – women – encourage this, by picking “protectors” and strength, and yes violence. And yes – there are very violent women. I am not saying it is not a human problem that includes all sexes and persuasions. You’re speaking of scapegoating here, and exploring that particular issue, and I honor that. This is the first public venue where I have opened this discussion. I am suggesting that pulling back the covers and stating that there is a heart to the gun violence problem, and that problem needs to acknowledge male violence. That we need to open the door on this obvious world-wide species encompassing fact. And consider evolving into a more peaceful creature. Impossible? I hope not. Thank you for letting me have this opportunity.

        • drscapegoat says:

          I appreciate your comments and agree with many of them. I am not an expert on male violence but on scapegoating. There are many connections: how groups are violent to their members, how the need for revenge by the scapegoat leads to violence, etc. But the dynamics in groups varies according to the sexual mix. Analyzing men and women’s interactions including those that leads to scapegoating and subsequent violent responses actually tells us a lot about how to limit and then transform them into something more creative. I’d be curious if you’ve had experience with this.

  2. Hi Dr. Scapegoat,
    I share Carol’s outrage. But her elephant is now a can of worms for me, or at least in regard to my brain trying to sort out that women are the primary lead in scapegoating yet as you note in your post on Romney’s “women in binders,” we’re also the universal scapegoats. How can we get anything done!?

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