Punishment, Coercion, and Revenge

Because I’m both both a libertarian and famous for conducting a
successful propaganda campaign, libertarian activists sometimes come
to me for tactical advice. During a recent email exchange, one of these
criticized me for wishing (as he thought) to “punish” the Islamist
enemies of the U.S. and Western civilization.

I explained that I have no desire to punish the perpetrators of
9/11; what I want is vengeance and death. Vengeance for us, death for
them. Whether they experience ‘punishment’ during the process is of
little or no interest to me.

My correspondent was reflecting a common confusion about the
distinctions among coercion, revenge, and punishment. Coercion is
intended to make another do your will instead of their own; vengeance
is intended to discharge your own anger and fear. Punishment is
neither of these things.

Punishment is a form of respect you pay to someone who is at least
potentially a member of the web of trust that defines your ethical
community. We punish ordinary criminals to deter them from repeating
criminal behavior, because we believe they know what ethical behavior
is and that by deterring them from crime we help them re-integrate
with an ethical community they have never in any fundamental sense
departed.

By contrast, we do not punish the criminally insane. We confine
them and sometimes kill them for our own safety, but we do not make
them suffer in an effort to deter them from insanity. Just to state
the aim is to make obvious how absurd it is. Hannibal Lecter, and his
all-too-real prototypes, lack the capacity to respond to punishment
by re-integrating with an ethical community.

In fact, criminal psychopaths are not even potentially members of
an ethical community to begin with. There is something broken or
missing in them that makes participation in the web of trust
impossible; perhaps the capacity to emotionally identify with other
human beings, perhaps conscience, perhaps something larger and harder
to name. They have other behavioral deficits, including poor impulse
control, associated with subtle neurological damage. By existing,
they demonstrate something most of us would rather not know; which is
that there are creatures who — though they speak, and reason,
and feign humanity — have nothing but evil in them.

On the behavioral evidence, Saddam Hussein and his now-deceased
serial-rapist son Uday fit the DSM-IV criteria for psychopaths
exactly; by contrast Qusay, the other deceased son, appears to have
been a merely ordinary thug. But it would be a dangerous mistake to
dismiss Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri and their ilk as merely
psychopathic — they don’t have the deficits in impulse control
and other areas that would imply. I fear they are examples of a
phenomenon even more troubling — neurologically normal
non-psychopaths who speak, and reason, and feign humanity, and
have nothing but evil in them.

Osama bin Laden is a religious fanatic, not a psychopath. He
suffers not from lack of conscience but from a particular kind of
conscience, principles that drive him to plan and execute mass
murder. Like a psychopath, he apparently lacks any capacity to
identify with his victims; but rather than being neurological, his
disorder is possession by a killer idea. He is a memebot.

Fanatics of bin Laden’s intensity are like psychopaths in that
reason cannot reach them and punishment only fuels their rage. We
have seen bin Laden’s like before in Hitler, Savanarola, and a
thousand pettier examples. Their belief systems are closed, circular,
self-justifying, bordering on if not becoming actually delusional.
You can confine them or kill them, but they cannot be re-integrated
into the ethical web of trust by the measures we use on mere
criminals.

The attempt to fit the treatment of fanatical terrorists into
a “criminal” frame, as though they were shoplifters or second-story
men or even ordinary murderers, is symptomatic of a deep blindness
in all too many Westerners — often a willful blindness. It
is as though, by denying that these people are irredeemably evil,
the tender-minded think they can edit evil out of the world. The
rest of us, if we ever had that illusion, lost it on 9/11.

22 thoughts on “Punishment, Coercion, and Revenge

  1. I can just see the flames coming your way on this one. If there is anything that will get the flames to come out of the wood work is for someone to actually state that people can be EVIL. Sad thing is not only can people be evil but so can belief systems as well.

    I have been thinking on the concepts of good and evil, of beliefs, of religion, of the meaning of life etc. I cannot say that I have had any breakthroughs but it has been an interesting ride. One aspect of my thoughts has to do with the whole why we are here question. And the major result has been that if there is nothing after this life, then morality, and ethics are what we as a society decide they are. That the only thing standing between us and the rest of the animal kingdom is our choices. So in that respect you are correct. One can only punish those that hold to the same ethical and moral framework. As for the rest you can only act to protect yourself and the rest of the group that holds to the shared moral and ethical framework.

  2. Amen! Concise, accurate and very true. We the USA did not declare war on islamo-terrorists – we were attacked. Again and again and again……… until 9-11. We the USA must focus on our national interests – which will benefit from a democratic form of government in the middle east. As much as I detest the Patriot Act and the asinine “protections” emplaced at our airports, we are doing very important work in the middle east.

  3. I basically agree. But the way were are now conducting the “war on terror” is not vengence. For example, a recent attack Afghan terroists apparetly killed some 17 of their non-combatant relatives. And we f’ing apologize for it. The terrorist attack on 9/11 killed a lot of non-combatants, and not one word of apology from bin Laden & Co. Until we give them naked and unremitting vengence, in kind, there is no peace to be found.

  4. I entirely agree that ObL is an evil man, but I deny that that means he should not be punished. He is a member of the human community, and we owe it to that community to punish even the most evil members of it. By declaring that some people (who are not psychopaths) are outside that community, we allow the potential legitimacy of treating other human beings as outside the human community as well.

    The Israeli government quite rightly arrested, tried, convicted, and punished Adolf Eichmann for his complicity in acts of mass murder that make ObL look like a piker. Those acts were legitimized and made possible by the false theory that Eichmann’s millions of victims were not members of the human community. (Note that Eichmann himself neither killed nor ordered the killing of a single person.) Had the Israeli agents merely shot him down in the street in Argentina and fled the jurisdiction, they would have made themselves outlaws as well.

    On a more ordinary plane, by your theory we should not punish pickpockets, for the evidence is that pickpockets as a rule take their punishment as a cost of doing business, and are not deterred in the slightest.

    As for vengeance, I don’t see what that has to do with it. If you really think ObL is the moral equivalent of a rabid dog, I point out that we don’t take vengeance on such dogs, though we do kill them for our own safety. Vengeance may be a legitimate motive for action, but it is not and cannot be a justification for action.

  5. The big difference between the Democrats’ plan and Bush’s (original)plan to fight terrorism, was that the Democrats wanted to do it as a law enforcement operation and bring these criminals to justice, while Bush originally started it out as a war of vengeance on evil men, now unfortunately he’s started to try to find a middle ground and backing away from a war of revenge.

    I think this is also at the heart of the confusion over Guantanamo bay. These aren’t simply men we can hold for a while and release them and hope they learned a lesson. After being incarcerated, most normal criminals do sort of learn their lesson and will either stop or think twice before committing criminal acts. Terrorist, on the other hand, just get more angry and will likely be more eager to carry out terrorist actions. It seems pretty clear that we can’t treat these people as normal criminals.

  6. Brandon: Do most normal criminals learn their lesson? I don’t know if that’s true. There are a lot of repeat offenders. I would actually tend to believe that there are a lot of people out there who don’t commit crimes only because of the perceived consequences, not because they believe crime to be wrong.

    Furthermore, I think the whole issue of incarceration is actually very counter-productive, especially given the likelihood of repeat offences. If criminals were to pay or perform some form of restitution, that would be one thing, but incarcerating them only further impoverishes the victims via the taxation required to keep such criminals incarcerated.

    Markshere2: I disagree that the U.S. is doing important work in the middle east, or that it’s even in its best interests to be involved there. Let’s face it, just about the only thing the middle east has going for it is oil. It would be more in the U.S. national interest to cut its reliance upon oil. Until it does so, it will always have to play diplomacy with despotic regimes because it can’t fight everybody, as much as some would like that.

    Bringing democracy or any other belief system to a group of people is no one’s job. If it’s a worthwhile system, it should be self-evident and they should come to it themselves. Otherwise, the process of proselytising can backfire and actually make people more strident in backwards ideologies. Of course, it may be said that dealing with democratic nations is easier and less destructive (although, at the end of the day, I don’t think democracy is a good system of government — it’s a tyranny of the masses, after all), but if you’re going to consider the “national interest” all of this has to be weighed against the incredible human toll and economic cost to do so.

    Just how is the interest of the average American being served by all of this? A lot of tax payer money is being poured into being the world police, oil is still expensive, the body count mounts daily, and importantly, the U.S.A. not only makes itself more of a target, but this in turn provides the perfect pretext for the draconian loss of liberty (that is supposedly being promoted abroad) on the domestic front via things such as the Patriot Act.

  7. Brandon: Do most normal criminals learn their lesson? I don’t know if that’s true. There are a lot of repeat offenders. I would actually tend to believe that there are a lot of people out there who don’t commit crimes only because of the perceived consequences, not because they believe crime to be wrong.

    Furthermore, I think the whole issue of incarceration is actually very counter-productive, especially given the likelihood of repeat offences. If criminals were to pay or perform some form of restitution, that would be one thing, but incarcerating them only further impoverishes the victims via the taxation required to keep such criminals incarcerated.

  8. Markshere2: I disagree that the U.S. is doing important work in the middle east, or that it’s even in its best interests to be involved there. Let’s face it, just about the only thing the middle east has going for it is oil. It would be more in the U.S. national interest to cut its reliance upon oil. Until it does so, it will always have to play diplomacy with despotic regimes because it can’t fight everybody, as much as some would like that.

    Bringing democracy or any other belief system to a group of people is no one’s job. If it’s a worthwhile system, it should be self-evident and they should come to it themselves. Otherwise, the process of proselytising can backfire and actually make people more strident in backwards ideologies. Of course, it may be said that dealing with democratic nations is easier and less destructive (although, at the end of the day, I don’t think democracy is a good system of government — it’s a tyranny of the masses, after all), but if you’re going to consider the “national interest” all of this has to be weighed against the incredible human toll and economic cost to do so.

    Just how is the interest of the average American being served by all of this? A lot of tax payer money is being poured into being the world police, oil is still expensive, the body count mounts daily, and importantly, the U.S.A. not only makes itself more of a target, but this in turn provides the perfect pretext for the draconian loss of liberty (that is supposedly being promoted abroad) on the domestic front via things such as the Patriot Act.

  9. To Eric:
    A tiny bit right. Bin Laden is a memebot. The question is whether or not killing is the best way to fight a memebot. However convenient it may seem, I don’t think killing is long term effective. In fact current events suggest that killing simply increases the meme’s rate of reproduction. One killing can lead to the embitterment of hundreds, and make their minds more susceptible to the meme. Terrorist cells have been designed from the outset to be decentralized to make them invulnerable to the killing strategy. Unless you manage to kill them all simultaneously with no sympathy from any outsiders (unlikely), the meme breeds. Ultimately memes must be fought with memes.

    To Brandon:
    I think confusion is the wrong word. Guantanomo Bay was setup by executive order by the President. That means he just decided to do it and it was done — it did not go through the legislative process. There’s not anything inherently wrong with that, presidents exercise the power of executive order all the time, especially in times of war. Now consider that the prisoners can be held indefinitely without being told what they are charged for or having a trial to determine if they are actually guilty of their alleged crimes. If this were done in any other prison there would be an outrage. There would be an even greater outrage if the prison had been formed outside the democratic process. But because no American citizens are in Guantanamo, the public doesn’t care so much. It is a given that many (if not all) of those incarcerated deserve to be there and receive life imprisonment or the death penalty. But if their crimes are so heinous and so obvious as the administration would have us believe, proving they committed them in a trial should be trivial. Yet there is no trial.

  10. I am reminded of the Flash animation that cropped up shortly after 9/11. A bunch of Americans go to Afghanistan and start singing “Kumbaya”. Osama is lured out of his hole and genuinely touched by the outpour of goodwill. Just as he sheds a tear of remorse… the Americans get out their guns and blow his fucking head off.

    Strangely enough, it’s the much-derided “conservative Christians” who are responsible for the widespread belief that all criminals can be brought to justice, punished, and thereby redeemed to society. If I recall correctly, the Quakers were the ones who coined the term “penitentiary” for a prison, and established a prison system around the idea that if one’s conscience were pricked, one could return to moral and industrious living. Of course the first Quaker penitentiary was designed to be so dreary, harsh, and uncomfortable that by comparison, Guantanamo looked like Club Med, so they were probably far more effective at stirring the consciences of their inmates than we are today.

  11. Believing in punishment is separate from believing in redemption. Whether criminals are, on the whole, redeemed by punishment is a factual question, just as whether they are, on the whole, deterred is. Punishment, however, can be justified on quite separate grounds than its effect or supposed effect on the criminal.

  12. Jeff–interesting comment.

    Historically, you are right that the Quakers began the idea of a penitentiary as a place of personal redemption. However, the British had jail/gaol systems before any Brits settled in America.

    When you say “all criminals can be brought to justice”, do you mean all criminals can be judged in a court of law? Or do you mean that all criminals can be brought back into society, rehabilitated?

    Such change is often promoted by Christians. If you ever check out the stories of people who became believers because of prison ministries like Prison Fellowship, you’ll hear lots of that stuff. However, there is no guarantee–and Christians at best can offer a opportunity to change.

    Eric: excellent thoughts about the difference between punishment and revenge. It’s been awhile since I observed someone being so careful with words.

    I suspect that social discussion of things like crime and punishment has never properly enunciated what to do with those humans who appear un-equipped with consciences. Or if it has, the idea has been long lost.

    Thanks for bringing this up, and helping clarify the problem of the “law enforcement” approach to terrorist assaults.

  13. The ideal, in the Murkan justice system, is that once you have “served your time” and “paid your debt to society”, you are free and should have the full complement of your rights restored. In reality, it helps if you’re white and Christian but even that may not be a guarantee (in some states I don’t think you’re allowed to own a gun if you’ve got a felony on your record, whether you’ve “served your time” or not).

  14. I think Eric is right in saying that some human beings are biologically defect in some way. Actually I know he is, the mutation of life is a well-known part of nature and it is no surprise that some end up psychopathic. I even know of several medical institutions existing for the sole purpose of treating or constraining them from society. Some of the treated people are there permanently.

    Is this life time prison? Is this a punishment? Vengeance?

    I say its a way of dealing with these persons Eric speak of. Personally, I prefer it to killing them. To me, killing another person in cold blood, is so fundamentally wrong that doing such a thing should only happen outside our society. By outside our society I do not mean the physical boundary, but the ethical and moral line that can be crossed, for example, into war.

    If a psychopath is found within my society, I would prefer placing him or her within one of these mentioned medical institutions. Logically because it would develop a stronger scientific understanding of the condition of this person. Second of all, because the person still is a person, with whom I identify with. That might just be my naive and idealistic way, but I justify it with the first reason, we can be safe while still learning from them. Maybe even find a cure for some of their sufferings. Third reason is that we have not crossed the mentioned boundary, everything is still as it allways were. Killing this person seems to be unescessary. There are many other ways to fulfill our requirements for safety.

    We’ve found the cure for so many things. I know some persons (very well) who are on pescription medicins that keeps them alive, makes them relax so they can concentrate, or even makes them happy. Why rule out that we could cure this insanity?

    But starting to talk of curing ObL in this way is to me a joke. He is definatly dangerous and as the leader of an enemy army he should be killed. So should all the persons of his kind. But amongst his kind is not Hussein. We did not have to kill Hussein. It was not nescessary, and still is not. Unless it proofs tactically important that he dies to defeat the terroists, he should be kept alive and dealt with, with curiousity.

    Under no circumstance what so ever should anyone be treated in any special way, without proof of that they deserve it. It is some years since I learned of the french revolution, but I do remember some of the most basic requirements they had to a free and democratic society. A law so fundementally important to them, that they accepted to die for it was, that all are to be treated just. Not an eye opener. Not surprising in any way. With no trial, I have a hard time understanding how the imprisonment in Guantanamo can be just. I do not believe that anyone has the power of the court to say that any other person is should be locked away. But somebody excercises that power by putting people into Guantanamo.

    If somebody has some external referance to discussions on these subjects I would be glad to learn.
    And please, if you see any grammatical or spelling error in my statement, and it really hurts to look at, let me know. I am only 15, and english is my second language, but making spelling errors really tare down readers respect.

  15. ObL is not a memebot. He is ruthless, yes, but he has a very obvious strategic goal: Saudi oil. Missing this about him means you’re underestimating the enemy and the need to make him and his cease to exist. It also means that you are missing everyday means (as in, use less oil any way you can) that you can weaken him in addition to whatever the US military can do. I don’t remember the exact numbers now, but what was the percentage drop in oil demand during the Asian crisis in 97-98 that brought oil down to almost $5/barrel? How long could Saudi Arabia last financially in such an environment before it collapses? How much is it worth to us to do our best to make that happen?

  16. I don’t think Osama Bin Laden is a memebot. I believe he is a very shrewd man, much the same as is Saddam Hussein, who see the political instability in the middle east and the opportunity to unite it. Saddam useed Arab Nationalism to attempt to make an Arab super power, and OBL uses religious fundamentalism to do it.

    That’s why Bush’s idea of a democracy in the ME is brilliant. Take the oil reserves, pump them back into Iraq, and you have a cornerstone for a new order in the middle east, with hopefully other countries following suit.

  17. I have to both agree and disagree with everybody here – except Brandon. He’s a dolt. Islam has expanded as far as it can without displacing some other firmly entrenched religion. There are no more paths for peaceful growth available to Islam in its current form. It is an adolescent religion as was Christianity in the 12th century. It is full of self-rightousness and blind in its belief of divine destiny. So it has resorted to violence instead of reform. It doesn’t matter who or what Bin laden is. He is just one of Islam’s conquistadors. Iraq or no Iraq the tube in London was going to get bombed sooner or later. UN or no UN the carnage will continue in Sudan. Likewise, Israel will always be a sharp stick in the eye … after all, how can Islam be considered Allah’s manifest destiny if it can’t even shove tiny little Israel into the ocean? Islam is young and hungry. It wants more turf and they’d rather fight than change.

    Which brings me to Iraq. The reason we invaded Iraq was to artificially induce a renaisance of islamic thought. You heard President Closeau back in ’02 when he said it was “his crusade”. WTF did you think he was talking about? Delivering democracy isn’t the goal. It’s the infectious diesease of new thought. We don’t want to fight and we don’t want to sit around waiting for the Islamic Martin Luther. It’s better to change them while we can.

  18. Eric: I like your post, but I have to quibble with the whole psychopath/ criminally insane bit. In this day and age, only someone who has serious reality testing problems [ie, believing the voices in your head telling you the guy down the hall is the son of satan, so you should kill him] have a decent chance at getting a Not Guilty by Reason of Insanity verdict. Someone who was just a “psychopath,” ie Anti-Social Personality Disorder, no way.

    I would also claim that someone with Anti-Social PD can live a fruitful life in society, he just needs to see that he is more likely to get what he wants working with people. Using your image, he needs to consciously connect himself to the “web of trust.”

  19. I used to have highly liberal, permissive, multicultural, open, … opinions and would strongly object any interference of U.S. into any world affairs: let the people and states sort it themselves, the world will be better place if the largest world power doesn’t start wars. The U.S. should be democratic, it should not be vindicative and it should respond only with proportionate force, etc …

    Then I read the book (not yet in print) manuscript available at the The Coming Dark Age website. It puts the current state of the world into historical perspective and it convinced me to drastically change my beliefs on this and other issues.

    The U.S. should find and kill the terrorists at all costs. In addition, it should occasionally overthrow an oppressive dictator (except that it shouldn’t bother fabricating evidence – they should just say “we overthrew him just because he is too much risk”). It has to project the image of hegemon and deal severely (itself or in alliance with other nations to share costs and casualities) with anyone who attempts to use any kind of violence in resolving the issues it has with U.S. or any other allied state.

    The terrorists are not insane, they are just people like you and me that believe or are led to believe – justifiably or not – that the U.S. or their dependant states such as Israel had done something wrong to them. Just as anyone occasionally suffers from problems and (sometimes justifiably, sometimes not) blames other people. In absence of fear of higher authority (parents, teachers for chilren, police in local scale or military in world scale) we resolve them with violence.

    The higher authority must of course keep demonstrating its power every time it is being challenged to keep the respect. If the challengers find out that the authority is not real, then the violence will escalate to higher scale and then we have a real problem.

    I must admit that the President Bush is at least trying to do that, but this will put to the test the internal qualities (political, economical and social structures) of the U.S.

    The other side of the coin is of course that the U.S. should project an image of a just autority – if it deals severely with transgressions of one group (e. g. Iraq) but grants other group unlimited rights (Israel) this will be perceived as partial and protective authority and will keep the fire of dissatisfaction and resentment. I am surprised to find improvements in this area (removal of settlements in Israel).

    It might be that we misjudged Mr Bush and that his actios are not a mere appropriation of state for private gain (profits of oil industry), but are a result of mission to save the (as the aforementioned book postulates) decaying Western civilization. The author of the book even asks himself in newsletters on his website if the President Bush has read his book.

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