Collective Punishment

The Libertarian Party of North Carolina rejects any and all use of collective punishment as a way to deal with criminal behavior. 

Humans are inherently social creatures. Very few people truly live in isolation; it is used as a punishment in prison and it drives people mad. In fact, almost all of us maintain enough human connection that we are part of some social grouping. Whenever a given social grouping grows in numbers sufficiently, the likelihood that some of its members will engage in violent behavior against the persons and properties of other people also grows. Eventually, most social groups must contend with the presence of members who engage in violence against person and property.  

Without hesitation or caveat, the LPNC supports the right of someone to defend themselves  to whatever degree necessary in the face of violence against their person or property. This right only extends when faced with the initiation of force by others. It is not a license for revenge. 

When crimes of war and acts of terror saturate news and social media, there is a visceral response from the world calling to see the criminals punished. Rooted in powerful emotional reactions and fueled by fear, these calls can and often do go beyond calls for action against the criminals themselves. Additionally, non-offenders can face calls for action against them, often based on ethnic identity or some other loose, superficial association. 

As Libertarians, we need to reject any call to treat all members of an ethnic group as being accountable for the alleged crimes of a tiny minority. In many cases accountability is assigned in such a way as to be considered by its advocates as being grounds for punishing both the criminal members of the group and the non-criminal members indiscriminately. 

For the purposes of discussion here, let us temporarily set aside the merits of specific accusations and instead concern ourselves exclusively with situations where criminal behavior has been well documented. Let us also set aside cases involving laws which make “crimes” of behavior which does not involve an individual (or individuals) actually harming anyone else or violating person or property. 

Libertarians strongly believe in individual responsibility. A criminal can and should be held accountable for their crimes. But an individual who merely shares membership in a group with a criminal, and who themselves have not committed the crime or crimes in question, should not be held accountable for crimes committed by another member of the group simply because of the shared membership or implied affiliation.  

Too often many, if not most, of the efforts to catch and punish criminals also impact non-criminals. This can range from small, as in traffic or home interference from police chases and operations, to large, as in major military interventions. While this is admittedly difficult to completely avoid, it also happens that the harm to non-criminals is not simply “collateral damage,” an unintended consequence of efforts to catch and punish criminals.  Too often what may have been called “collateral damage” is actually the product of a deliberate effort to punish non-criminals simply because they share some group membership with criminals. This reaction to criminal behavior is usually called collective punishment, and it is unacceptable. 

Again…Libertarians oppose all forms of collective punishment. 

Consider what seems to be the most common argument in favor of collective punishment, that the non-criminal members of the group in question are aware of the crimes of their criminal members, and that it is the duty of the non-criminals to help authorities identify and prosecute the criminal members. In failing to contribute to the prosecution of the criminal members, the non-criminal members are seen as protecting the criminal members, if not supporting them overtly. Many things are wrong about this approach. Voluntarily giving tangible aid to a criminal, knowing that they are criminals, may indeed be grounds for considering the giver of aid to be a co-conspirator or something of the sort. But that is not what collective punishment is about.

The non-criminal members have at least some things in common with the criminal members, but this is deliberate, by definition, and based on arbitrary association. To assign to these non-criminal members the responsibility of actively helping to track down and prosecute the criminal members is not at all reasonable. In such a situation the non-criminal members would have no more responsibility, if any, to engage in active law enforcement than would any individuals who are not members of the group in question. Even in an emergency, the non-criminal members should not, by default, be expected to become proactively involved in finding and prosecuting the criminals.

Further, while the non-criminal members may have actually known who the criminal members are, the non-criminal members are not automatically in a position to provide any substantive support to law enforcement. Even if the non-criminal members do know important information about the criminal members, it may not be easy for the non-criminal members to do anything substantial to aid law enforcement. Nor does any group bear any responsibility of expectation to commit any action against their will.

Further, it is not appropriate for “society at large” to expect that such law enforcement support become a high priority for the non-criminal members, overriding the many other personal concerns that the non-criminal member may also be faced with. Among these concerns includes the danger which involvement by the non-criminal member, their friends, or their families might face if such involvement became known to the criminal members.  

A non-criminal member may choose to help law enforcement and in doing so provide critical support to law enforcement efforts. The non-criminal member may be seen as highly virtuous if they do provide such support. But such support should not automatically be seen as a moral obligation of the non-criminal member, much less grounds for holding the non-criminal member accountable for the crimes in question.

At the beginning of the discussion here, reference was made to collective punishment based on membership in an ethnic group. But collective punishment can be based on membership in a wide variety of associations. Many times this membership is not even based on choices by individuals who might be considered members. The kind of prejudice which often engenders calls for collective punishment can be based on occupation, residency, perceived racial identity, gender, or a number of other qualities.

Again, Libertarians believe in individual responsibility. We oppose all forms of collective punishment. 

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  • Rob yates
    published this page in Issue Papers 2023-11-02 19:44:53 -0400
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