Stratfor looks at the stupidity and evil of collective punishment

Summary:  This essay by Strafor comes at a critical time for America, reminding us about the folly and evil of collective punishment. Asides from the bad ethics, demagogues use allegations of collective to arouse public passions for their own political gain — which distracts us from focusing on our actual enemies.


Striking a Balance Between Security and Freedom

By Anisa Mehdi at Stratfor, 4 February 2017.

In the winter of 1917, the French freighter Mont Blanc, laden with picric acid and TNT destined for the European war effort, headed into the great harbor of Halifax to join a convoy bound for Bordeaux. A Norwegian ship, the Imo, was leaving Halifax at the same time, destined for New York. Its mission was to bring food and supplies back to people in German-occupied Belgium and northern France.

On that cold December day, it should have been an ordinary passing of two ships. But as a result of miscommunication, navigational protocols were violated. Seamen, civilians and members of the Royal Naval College of Canada looked on in horror as the Mont Blanc and the Imo collided. The impact caused a fire on the French ship that eventually caused its explosive payload to ignite. For Haligonians, all hell broke loose. As well as destroying much of the harbor, the resulting blast killed almost 2,000 people. The captain of the HMCS Acadia, located 15 miles (24 kilometers) outside of Halifax that day, estimated the smoke rising from the seat of the explosion to be more than 2 miles high.

The Halifax disaster {Wikipedia} was the largest man-made explosion on Earth until World War II, when the United States’ atom bombs destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.

The small German population of Nova Scotia came under attack as the slogan “Place the Blame” riled people toward vengeance. Because who else could be responsible for the calamity besides the Kaiser? And weren’t all Germans, therefore, collectively culpable? At first, reports emerged of rampaging crowds stoning neighbors with German-sounding names. But less than a week after the explosion, before the fires were even put out or all the bodies recovered, let alone buried, the Canadian military ordered the arrest of every German citizen.

Collective guilt {Wikipedia} is all too common throughout history, regardless of whether punishment is meted out because of political, economic or religious differences. The Jews, cruelly oppressed by Pharaoh. The Christians, persecuted by Nero. Non-Catholics on the Iberian Peninsula, tortured by inquisitors, and the reverse: Catholics, tormented by Oliver Cromwell. The consequences of collective blame and punishment — people leaving their homes en masse in search of freedom and safety — are also familiar. We see them today as people flee Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, and as refugees flood into Europe or knock at America’s door. Can looking back inform our present and mitigate the problems ahead?

Harrah Arendt on collective guilt

A Breach of Trust

Throughout the millennia, the human family has responded to crises of citizenship and migration in different ways, particularly when religion seemed to lie at the heart of them. Exodus chapters 7-11 detail negotiations between Pharaoh and Moses as the prophet seeks freedom for his people; Pharaoh promises to release them, and reneges. In return God sends plagues, collectively punishing the Egyptians, and hatred for the Hebrews rises. Moses restates his case, and eventually, after a bloodbath of Egyptian firstborns, the Red Sea parts. For those migrants, it was the beginning of a perilous 40-year trek across Sinai. The book of Joshua recounts that when finally they arrived at their destination, the Divine instructed them to destroy the city of Jericho and all of its inhabitants. Alas, the story of migrants leaving disaster behind, only to carry it with them to a new place, is as old as the River Jordan.

Another famous story of flight from religious persecution arose in the 15th century, when Andalucia — an 800-year-old, Muslim-majority civilization on the Iberian Peninsula — fell to Catholic invaders from the north. Jewish and Muslim converts to Catholicism were brought before a tribunal of inquisitors bent on flushing out religious heretics. Their torture tactics are legendary. In 1492, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella enacted a charter ordering the “Jews and Jewesses of our kingdoms to depart and never to return or come back to them or to any of them.” Men and women whose ancestors had lived there for hundreds of years were given three months “to dispose of themselves, and their possessions, and their estates,” and to leave with royal safeguard. About 165,000 people immigrated to Europe and North Africa. Some 20,000 of them died as they searched for new homelands, a statistic that brings to mind the perilous journeys of migrants who have fled Africa and Asia over the past three years.

Migrant Jews streaming south across the Mediterranean in 1492 joined a diverse religious population that included Jews who came after the First Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed in 586 B.C., Christians who came in the first and second centuries in the wake of Jesus’ disciples, and Muslims who arrived with the expansion of the Islamic empire in the seventh century. What may have been lost from the multiconfessional society of Andalucia was resurrected along the southern Mediterranean. For 450 years these cultures co-mingled, until a backlash against the creation of the State of Israel resulted in the expulsion of Jews from many Arabic-speaking, Muslim-majority nations.

As for Spain, it finally revoked the Edict of Expulsion banishing Jews in 1968, after the Second Vatican Council decreed in the seminal document “Nostra aetate” that,

“what happened in [Jesus’] passion cannot be charged against all the Jews, without distinction, then alive, nor against the Jews of today. Although the Church is the new people of God, the Jews should not be presented as rejected or accursed by God, as if this followed from the Holy Scriptures.”

The Germans of Halifax were slowly exonerated after the captain of the Mont Blanc was arrested and charged with manslaughter. (The charges against him were later dropped for lack of evidence.) But trauma within their community remained. In addition to experiencing the fires, tsunami and deaths that followed the Mont Blanc explosion, the trust of neighbors had been breached.

Earth rests in our hands

A Global Ethic

How might nations today avert collective blame and punishment while finding the right balance between security and compassion? What constitutes the legitimate control of borders? How do we vet perfect strangers and identify the atypical threats? How do we articulate our moral and ethical stances to reflect respect for where we come from, what our nation is today and what it may someday become? With cooperation and trust, advises Jeffrey D. Sachs in his 2011 book, The Price of Civilization: Reawakening American Virtue and Prosperity:

“Many of our major global problems — climate change, global population growth, mass migration, regional conflicts, and financial regulation — will require a much higher level of political cooperation among the world’s major powers than we have so far achieved.

“Without sufficient trust across national borders, the growing global competition over increasingly scarce resources could easily turn into great power confrontations. Without trust, there is little chance for the coordinated global actions needed to fight poverty, hunger, and disease. Without trust, governments will be at the mercy of footloose global corporations that move their money to tax havens around the planet and pressure governments to lower tax rates, labor standards, environmental controls, and financial regulations. Mindfulness of the world therefore really amounts to a new readiness to adopt global norms of good behavior that aim to protect poor countries as well as the rich, weak countries as well as the powerful.”

Today’s growing global trend toward nativism evidences lack of trust, competition for resources and blindness to the wisdom of the elders, prophets and ethicists. Theologian Hans Kung would argue that our norms must include inclusivity, that there will be no better global order without a global ethic.” Kung drafted the Declaration Toward a Global Ethic for the Parliament of the World’s Religions in 1993:

“By a global ethic we do not mean a global ideology or a single unified religion beyond all existing religions, and certainly not the domination of one religion over all others. By a global ethic we mean a fundamental consensus on binding values, irrevocable standards, and personal attitudes. Without such a fundamental consensus on an ethic, sooner or later every community will be threatened by chaos or dictatorship, and individuals will despair.”

The consensus should include the sustainable treatment of the natural environment, the rule of law, distributive justice and solidarity, and the core value of mutual esteem.

But long before Sachs and Kung, the founders of the United States maintained an ethical sensibility made manifest in the Bill of Rights. The founders, with Bibles and Korans in their libraries, were cognizant of the religious persecutions of the past — including instances of religious tyranny in pre-colonial and colonial times. They chose to guard citizens’ right to worship in different ways by preventing the “misconstruction or abuse” of congressional powers.

It wasn’t easy coming up with the words to describe the rights that would protect and dignify the people of a nascent nation. James Madison’s original provision on religion read: “The civil rights of none shall be abridged on account of religious belief or worship, nor shall any national religion be established, nor shall the full and equal rights of conscience be in any manner, or on any pretense, infringed.” The House of Representatives altered the text to read: “Congress shall make no law establishing religion, or to prevent the free exercise thereof, or to infringe the rights of conscience.” The Senate then refined it even further to say, “Congress shall make no law establishing articles of faith, or a mode of worship, or prohibiting the free exercise of religion.” In 1791 — three years after the Constitution was ratified — the First Amendment was finally adopted:

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging freedom of speech or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

Ours is the oldest written constitution still in use. Its checks and balances have safeguarded democracy for nearly 230 years. The establishment and exercise clauses keep a wall of sanctity between religion and state. This system is one with enough flexibility to grow gracefully with our nation’s changing political, economic and cultural norms. And it may see its mettle tested in the coming years, particularly if the question of registering people according to their religion is pursued.

Unlike the forced diaspora of Jews from the newly Catholic Spain, the fate of Nova Scotia’s innocent Germans, and the Muslim victims of the Islamic State, the United States will not sanction collective punishment — the establishment and exercise clauses proscribe such retribution on religious terms. Religious affiliation is not listed on the country’s national census or on American passports. Thanks to the First Amendment, it’s really nobody’s business what faith a person practices. Someday the strengths of the American dream may go global. Someday nations may sign up for Kung’s dream of a global ethic. At the very least, as Sachs exhorts, “We need to return to a spirit of true deliberation at all levels of society, one that reconceives politics as honest group problem solving, grounded in mutual respect and shared values.”

Striking a Balance Between Security and Freedom
is republished with permission of Stratfor.


Anisa Mehdi

About the author

Anisa Mehdi is a documentary filmmaker, journalist and current adjunct professor at Seton Hall University. She has won two Emmys, a Cine Golden Eagle, and numerous awards from the Society of Professional Journalists. She was the first American to cover the Hajj pilgrimage on location in Saudi Arabia and made National Geographic’s acclaimed “Inside Mecca” as well as two other hajj films for PBS. Her work on Arabs and Muslims has appeared on CBS, PBS, and ABC’s Nightline.

Ms. Mehdi is a consultant for the U.S. State Department as well as the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art. She also serves on the boards of the Abraham Path Initiative and the Esalen Institute. She was a Fulbright Scholar in Jordan from 2009-2010. She studied at Wellesley College and Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.

Stratfor logo

About Stratfor

Founded in 1996, Stratfor provides strategic analysis and forecasting to individuals and organizations around the world. By placing global events in a geopolitical framework, we help customers anticipate opportunities and better understand international developments. They believe that transformative world events are not random and are, indeed, predictable. See their About Page for more information.

For More Information

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. See all posts about jihad, and posts about Islam, and especially these…

  1. The Fight for Islamic Hearts and Minds.
  2. How I learned to stop worrying and love Fourth Generation War. We can win at this game.
  3. The solution to jihad: kill and contain our foes. Give war another chance!
  4. Darwin explains the futility of killing insurgents. It makes them more effective.
  5. Business 101 tells us what to expect next from jihadists: good news for them, bad for us.
  6. The third wave of Jihad begins. We will soon see its power.
  7. Trump prepares for a strong military response to jihadists. We’ll win anyway.

Two books to help you better understand this problem.

We Love Death As You Love Life
Available at Amazon.
Border Vigils: Keeping Migrants Out of the Rich World
Available at Amazon.


11 thoughts on “Stratfor looks at the stupidity and evil of collective punishment”

  1. “Cooperation and trust….”
    I can understand how someone may find fault with Trump’s recent edict.
    How ever this article is oddly littered with conflation and simplification.
    Andalucia was simply not peacefully settled by Arabs.
    Nor was Christianity a foreign susbstance in 700 in Iberia.
    Neither did the Catholics willy nilly just ask them to leave.
    Things were quite complex in Spain and even so until today.


  2. Highly Suggest reading reading the article “The Most Intolerant Wins: The Dictatorship of the Small Minority” by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. Btw he is a Lebanese Christian and was around when the Lebanon civil war kicked off, highly relevant. This is food for thought and a counter to the Stratfor collective guilt article. I agree with some of what Stratfor is trying to say but it is somewhat naive.

    I sincerely would like to know what you think of it, as I really do appreciate your work here at FabiusMaximus. Also epagbreton is quite right. I’m bit of a student of history and from my understanding of the literature and study of Spain, it was way more complicated than that and the Arabs/Moors were not the nice guys in which the standard narrative of today, tries to play out.

    1. Dayton,

      As a working assumption, I assume everything Taleb says is wrong — outside his professional area of competence (math and finance). This article is esp daft, showing an astonishing ignorance of economics. Labeling food costs little or nothing — so adding certification as Kosher or Halal or organic (depending on the certification requirements, which he ignores). If it generates added revenue, it’s worth doing.

      Most restaurants are a local service. A halal Subway in an area with a large market for halal foods is just good sense. Esp if it draws customers from outside its normal geographic service area. Even more so if its competitors don’t provide halal service. Why Taleb finds this so fascinating is difficult to understand.

      “study of Spain, it was way more complicated than that”

      That can be said of any historical reference. It’s always more complicated than can be discussed in a few paragraphs, or in an article of a thousand words, or whatever. These things have to be interpreted in the context of the article.

      “Arabs/Moors were not the nice guys in which the standard narrative of today, tries to play out.”

      I don’t know what this means. Where they angels? No. We they closer to our present-day standards of civilized behavior than the reconquista societies? Most of today’s historians say yes. I agree.

    2. @Fab: I tried to read the rest of the article and it was indeed pretty jumpy, almost more like a draft than a full piece, I thought. I believe his point is that an intransigent or extreme minority can have disproportionate impact, especially if it is possible to accommodate them without much cost. Then he seems to veer into something about Islamic law and the question of “can we be tolerant of intolerance?” with the answer of “no and it will inevitably destroy our democracy, the West is in the process of committing suicide, because Muslims, in particular Salafists.”

      Personally I would say we are – in the US anyway – far more in danger of injuring ourselves at the goading of Islamic extremists than we are in danger of being somehow fundamentally transformed. I suspect the case is similar in Europe, if with a more genuine and larger-scale challenge due to their geographic proximity and all those refugees. (Apparently Vladimir Putin rules over a nation which is nearly 20% Muslim, and with that proportion increasing over time.)

      1. Dana,

        Your comment aroused my curiosity, so I skimmed the rest. It reminded me of another aspect of Taleb’s work which is quite daft. He approaches issues which other experts have extensively studied — ignoring all their work, as if he can do better starting from scratch. For example, Theodore J. Lowi (professor of government at Cornell) did sophisticated work on this in the 1970s (I took several of his classes) — much better than Taleb’s guesses. I’m sure more work has built on that in the 40 years since then.

        Also, Taleb shows no actual knowledge of Islamic culture or politics beyond that one could gain from reading Time magazine.

  3. My understanding is that he used the Kosher/Halal as an innocuous analogy to demonstrate as Dan Bowman said “an intransigent or extreme minority can have disproportionate impact”, whether good/bad, or neutral.

    Nassim article seems to somewhat support/relevant an earlier article you put out called How to use refugees as geopolitical weapons, brutal but effective. Also this for consideration: “Minority Rules: Scientists Discover Tipping Point for the Spread of Ideas“. Ideas go to behaviors, behaviors into action/cultural mind-shifts

    possible Examples of a minority rule over a short time frame:

    • counter-culture of the 60s
    • Would political correctness be an example of a small intolerant minority dictating the majority’s behavior?
    • Wahhabism and its spread through funding of Mosques and Madrassas

    I might be getting this all wrong, but it seems like there might be a point or some validity to what he says.

    1. Dayton,

      RPI is a serious institution. I don’t know what the paper says, but the article makes no sense whatsoever. Look at its two key points.

      “when just 10% of the population holds an unshakable belief, their belief will always be adopted by the majority of the society.” “Once the minority opinion reached 10 percent of the population, the network quickly changes as the minority opinion takes over the original majority opinion.”

      First, no serious social scientists uses the word “aways” in their findings. Second, there are many unshakable beliefs held by 10% of society that never became majority beliefs. Minority religions, astrology, vegetarians (in some nations). Restated, this says there are no “unshakable minority beliefs”.

      “When the number of committed opinion holders is below 10%, there is no visible progress in the spread of ideas. It would literally take the amount of time comparable to the age of the universe for this size group to reach the majority”

      This contracts point number one. How do minority beliefs go from 9% to 10% and then quickly from 10% to 51% if from 9% to 51% takes 5 billion years?

      As for your examples, none of those are examples of that phenomenon. Most aspects of counter-culture never were adopted by the majority — such as an indolent life-style (not in the rat race), promiscuity, far-left politics, belief in eastern religions, and “love not war”. Political correctness never became a majority belief; it’s been strongly resisted — Trump’s election probably marks its death knell. Wahhabism was and is a small minority of Islam (from memory, which easily could be wrong, its <5%).

    2. Wahabiism is probably influential in its ideas but is a tiny minority in terms of world Islamic practice – as the Administration recently pointed out while arguing over the recent executive orders, those orders didn’t say anything about Pakistan or Indonesia, which dwarf the Middle East in Muslim population. I imagine its primary advantage as a movement is that it gets free money from wealthy Saudis. There are probably many students who attend madrassas funded by Wahabist groups because that’s the only school around, or the only one they can afford. (Madrassa being Arabic for ‘school,’ regardless. I live within ten miles of an Islamic Madrassa – and within five of several Catholic schools.)

      I think that some of these minority ideas can have impacts and can kind of make a space for themselves. For instance, the UK’s significant portion of committed vegetarians have been long-standing enough that there were special alternative ration rules for vegetarians during WWII. (Basically, they got more eggs or cheese to make up for not eating meat.) Similarly I think restaurants in the UK typically have a vegetarian option or two. Does this constitute the dire tyranny of the vegetarian agenda? Will there be no beef-eaters in the UK in twenty-seven years?! No, barring some strange turn of events.

      This isn’t to say that there aren’t Islamic groups and movements that are genuinely hostile to Western institutions, but we aren’t doing ourselves any favors by drawing a scary cartoon and then deciding the cartoon represents the real truth. I wonder what cartoon we will draw next when and if the Scary Muslim cartoon starts losing its sell factor.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Scroll to Top
%d bloggers like this: