Terrorism and the Ethics of Collective Punishment (2017), by Sean Gabb

Terrorism and the Ethics of Collective Punishment
by Sean Gabb
(23rd March 2017)

Outraged by yesterday’s terrorist attack in London, one of my Facebook friends has posted this:

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. The way to deal with Islamic terrorism is mercilessly. You must not be squeamish about liberal use of the death penalty for those who commit or attempt acts of terror, or their associates. You must not be squeamish about retaliatory acts against their friends and families. Every attendee at their mosque should be deported if a dual of foreign national, then no stone of the building should be left standing and the soil soaked in pigs blood.

If you don’t do these things, or attack those who do, you are enabling terror. You yourself have some blood on your hands. This is not me being angry, for I am not angry at all. I’ve just read some history, and this is how it is. Not taking necessary dissuasive action is profoundly harmful. It is evil.

What I find interesting about the post is my friend’s advocacy of collective punishment for individual crimes. He is advancing these propositions:

First, that the man who committed yesterday’s attack is to be regarded both as an individual as a member of an alien group;

Second, that this alien group, or a section of it, is to be held partly responsible for the attacks;

Third, that punishment for the attacks is to involve loss of property and other rights for people who cannot be proven to have taken part in the attack, or to have known about it in advance, plus a deliberate religious desecration;

Fourth, that these punishments, taken together, are to mark out the attacker’s group as both legally inferior and generally unwelcome in this country.

Taking into account what he has said, and what naturally follows from it, my friend’s justification seems to be utilitarian. If a member of a relevant group has reasonable suspicion that someone he knows is contemplating a terrorist attack, he will have an incentive to tell the authorities about it. The leaders of this group will also have an incentive to take their own deterrent actions. This being so, there will be a diminution of terrorist violence from within that group.

To put it mildly, I find the post troubling. I find it troubling for two reasons.

First, we live in a civilisation that pays unusual attention to individual rights and individual responsibilities. We punish only those individuals who can be proven to have committed a crime. We also punish accomplices before and after the fact. We may also impute criminal liability in obvious cases of common purpose. But, unless they are accomplices of some kind, we do not punish the relatives and friends and neighbours of a criminal. This is an important limitation. It is central to our conception of civic order. So far as we depart from it, we become less English and less European and less Christian in our ways.

Second, collective punishment may be a recipe for civil war. If I cannot persuade the man down the road out of the crime that I reasonably believe he is contemplating, I may be tempted to inform on him. On the other hand, I may believe that my other neighbours will then murder me. This will be very likely if I belong to a group that has been officially told it is inferior and unwelcome. I may then connive at covering up the man’s crime. Or I shall be inclined to join in rioting and other acts that may deter the authorities from imposing more than a token collective punishment.

I could end my response here, basking in my own liberalism. There is, however, a difficulty with my first point. The civic order that I mention emerged in its purest form in England and those other European nations that enjoyed a high degree of ethnic homogeneity. It seemed reasonable to treat each other as individuals, because we were all members of the same group – or members of groups closely-related and with fluid boundaries. Such an order has never emerged in territories populated by groups who define themselves as radically separate from each other. The custom here has been for members of each group to deal justly with their own as individuals, but to extend such dealing to others only as a matter of limited courtesy, or from a position of overwhelming strength. When there is a conflict, the custom has been to treat individuals from another group as a representative of the group, and to hold the group as a whole responsible for the acts of its individual members.

The civic order that I mention is not a universal fact, but a product of unusual circumstances. Indeed, it has not been an entirely settled fact even in England. Look at our treatment of the native Irish after each of their rebellions. Look at our treatment of the Scottish Highlanders whenever they actively sided with the exiled Stuarts. Look at how we treated the subject nationalities in our Empire.

We have, since the end of the Second World War, moved from unquestioned homogeneity to an increasing diversity. The civic order that emerged in one state of affairs may not be supportable in a different state of affairs. There are certain new groups among us who do not wish to assimilate – or perhaps cannot assimilate. So far as it fears loss of territory or demographic weight, the traditional majority shows a growing willingness to act like any other group in history. If someone in one of the minority groups robs a bank, or murders his wife for the insurance money, he will be punished as an individual in the usual way. If he preys on the women or children of the majority group, or commits acts of terrorist violence, he will increasingly be treated as a representative of his group, and his group will be held collectively responsible for his actions.

I will add that a culture of collective responsibility is as likely to result in a restored equilibrium as in unlimited conflict. That is a matter of circumstances. Undoubtedly, though, the achievement of equilibrium will only follow some degree of conflict, and a permanent breakdown of the old order of things.

What I wish to be the case is of no importance. We are where we are, and we are headed where we are headed. It is possible that the “community leaders” of the group from which yesterday’s outrage came will also see where we are headed, and will take resolute and sufficient action. But this would be historically unusual. The usual dynamics of any conflict between groups is an escalation of mutual provocations, in which the moderates on both sides lose position to the hard-liners. It then becomes a question of which side has greater resources and the will to use them.

For the avoidance of doubt, I do not want my country to fall apart in civil war. I do not want the breakdown of our ancient civic order. But what my Facebook friend has said, I fear, is only what many others are thinking – and what many more who do not yet agree will soon be thinking.

© 2017, seangabb.

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