The Collective Guilt Myth

Mr. Chamberlin is a skilled observer and re­porter of economic and political conditions at home and abroad. In addition to writing a num­ber of books, he has lectured widely and is a contributor to The Wall Street Journal and numerous magazines.

The United States in the pres­ent decade experienced three as­sassinations of prominent public figures: President John F. Ken­nedy, his brother, Senator Robert F. Kennedy, and the Negro leader, Dr. Martin Luther King. Each of these tragedies brought forth a chant of the alleged collective guilt of the entire American people for the crime of an isolated individ­ual. Those who succumb to this emotional reaction should recall the wise words of Edmund Burke: "I do not know the method of drawing up an indictment against a whole people."

There are more than 200 million Americans, people of the most diverse backgrounds, interests, lev­els of education and knowledge, political and economic sympathies. To hold all 200 million responsi­ble for the isolated acts of more or less deranged individuals verges on national masochism and is downright absurd, as may be recognized if one recalls the cir­cumstances of these killings.

President Kennedy was the vic­tim of a mentally unstable person whose sympathies, so far as can be judged from his record, were confusedly Leftist. The man ac­cused of shooting Dr. King in Memphis is awaiting trial, so the facts are not all available. What is not in doubt is that the overwhelm­ing majority of Americans de­plored the crime and bore no di­rect or indirect responsibility for it. Again, subject to further revelations at the trial of his assail­ant, Robert Kennedy seems to have been an innocent bystander, shot because of the implacable feud between Jews and Arabs in the Near East.

Other Lands Plagued

Deplorable as are such acts of violence, they scarcely form a rea­sonable basis for indicting the whole American people. Political assassination is as old as recorded history and has taken place in al­most all nations under various cir­cumstances. There are examples in the Old Testament, in the annals of Greece and Rome. In an age more familiar with classical lan­guages and history, a parallel might have been drawn between the Kennedy brothers and Rome’s Gracchi, who tried to shift the balance in the cumbersome Roman constitution away from the patri­cians toward the plebeians, al­though they were of high birth themselves.

The Middle Ages afford many examples of hated, weak, or un­lucky rulers who were done to death in one way or another. And the history of the Russian Empire has been wittily and not inaccur­ately described as despotism temp­ered by assassination. Some Czars perished as a result of palace coups, with the complicity of their guards. Alexander II was assas­sinated in his capital, St. Peters­burg, after several unsuccessful attempts, by a small determined band of revolutionaries who called themselves Narodnaya Volya (People’s Will). This same group took pains to dissociate itself from the killing of President Garfield (the nonpolitical act of a disap­pointed office seeker), putting out a statement to the effect that the assassination of high officials was a legitimate form of struggle in Russia, with its denial of liberty, but impermissible in a free re­public.

Ironically enough, Alexander II was the most progressive of mod­ern Czars, having emancipated the serfs and introduced other re­forms. The last Czar, Nicholas II, was shot down with his Czarina and all their children in a blood-drenched cellar, following the sen­tence of a self-constituted Bolshe­vik court during the Russian civil war in 1918.

Nor have other European coun­tries been free from murder for political causes, some of them com­mitted by anarchists and other revolutionaries who believed in "propaganda by the deed." Among the more distinguished victims were King Humberto of Italy in 1900 (he died murmuring some words about "the dangerous trade of kings"), President Sadi Carnot of France, who was stabbed during a visit to Lyons, Prime Min­ister Canovas of Spain, and the Empress Elizabeth of Austria. Her killing, by an Italian anarch­ist as a symbol of hated royalty, was especially ironical because Elizabeth had rebelled against the excessive formality of Vienna court life, separated from her hus­band, and was leading a life of private retirement in Switzerland.

So America has no monopoly of assassinations of prominent pub­lic figures, for political and non­political reasons. Yet no one has ever suggested that the Russian, Italian, French, or any other peo­ple should be regarded as involved, en masse, in these crimes.

Steps to Curb Crime

The alleged sickness of Ameri­can society is a favorite theme of those who would implicate all Americans when a John F. Ken­nedy, a Robert F. Kennedy, a Martin Luther King is murdered by a specific individual. Now con­temporary American society un­mistakably has its faults. But these do not constitute some vague sickness. They are the consequence of the failure of definite individ­uals and groups to measure up to their duties and responsibilities.

The United States crime rate, especially in violent forms of crime, is a national disgrace be­cause the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of the gov­ernment have failed in their ob­vious obligation to do something about it. The rate of murder, as­sault, armed robbery, and similar crimes has grown in precise pro­portion as the handling of brutal criminals has become softer, more permissive, more ineffectual. State after state has been abolishing the death penalty, even for the most atrocious cases of murder without extenuating circumstances, for purposes of robbery, for instance.

From the Supreme Court down, the trend of judicial decisions has been not toward protecting the peaceful citizen in his home or on the streets, but toward hampering the police in their work and pro­tecting the criminal against proper punishment for his mis­deeds. There are also outrageous delays in bringing the most no­torious criminals, about whose guilt there is no reasonable doubt, to answer for their crimes before the courts, which are often clogged with cases involving trivial and minor offenses.

Crime is like sin; every candi­date is publicly against it. But there has been no progress, rather retrogression, in taking practical concrete steps to reduce a higher incidence of crime and insecurity in the streets, in public parks, even in private homes, than one finds in foreign countries on a comparable level of education and civilization.

Ordinary crime, as well as polit­ical assassination, is not some­thing for which the whole Amer­ican people may reasonably be held responsible. In its present out­rageous dimensions it is the nat­ural and inevitable result of neglect and failure in the fram­ing of laws, and the laxness and delay in administering these laws. What is needed to promote a downward turn in the violent crime statistics is not to "cure" a "sick" society, but a number of specific practical measures de­signed to reverse the modern trend to coddle the criminal at the expense of his victims.

Mob Manifestations

This national guilt myth is re­sponsible for other faulty judg­ments and analyses. A very seri­ous example of mass violence, ac­companied by murder, assault, wholesale arson and looting has been the rioting in predominantly Negro sections of a number of United States cities and towns in recent years. Another such exam­ple, on a minor scale, was the ac­tion of some students at Colum­bia University in taking physical possession of the President’s office and other buildings, holding some college administrators prisoners for a time, defiling the buildings which they occupied, shouting ob­scenities over the campus, and forcibly disrupting for a time the normal functioning of a great in­stitution of learning.

A presidential commission pub­lished a report on the causes of the riots in the cities; an aca­demic commission, headed by Pro­fessor Archibald Cox of Harvard, published a report on the disturb­ances at Columbia. Although dif­ferent persons were involved, there was a curious similarity in the method of reasoning in these two reports. The direct perpetra­tors of violence were left uncen­sured or, at most, praised with faint damns, while criticism was concentrated on alleged secondary causes: on that familiar scape­goat, "society," in the case of the rioters; on the college administra­tion, in the case of the student disturbances.

Almost half a century ago the Governor of Massachusetts, Calvin Coolidge, later President, won na­tional acclaim with his declara­tion on the occasion of the strike of Boston policemen: "There is no right to strike against the public safety by anybody, anywhere, at any time." (What a pity no one could repeat these words with au­thority in New York at the time when it was paralyzed by strikes, slowdowns, and threats of strikes by such essential groups of public servants as teachers, police­men, firemen, and sanitary workers!)

Both of the reports under dis­cussion might well have started with the same words, applied to rioting in a free country where there are plenty of opportunities for expressing grievances and seeking to redress them in a peace­ful and orderly way. Instead, the presidential commission placed the principal blame for the riots on racism in white society. Insofar as racism implies deliberate preju­dice and discrimination against others because of race, color, and creed, it is a vicious and dishon­orable thing; yet, the law has not yet been devised that would make every individual love or esteem all his neighbors or fellow-citi­zens.

Signs of Progress

Few Americans today would avow themselves as racists, and external signs of discrimination on grounds of race and color have been swept away by one legal en­actment after another, some by the Federal government, some by the states. Deliberate segregation by color in schools has been illegal for fifteen years. Even so, it might spare some friction and bitterness if some zealous Federal bureau­crats and state education admin­istrators would remember that, while the law forbids segregation, it does not enjoin integration up to the point of destroying the neighborhood school and compel­ling the busing of children away from their homes into unfamiliar and sometimes unsafe neighbor­hoods.

Discrimination on trains, in buses and public accommodations has been legally outlawed. Doors of opportunity are opening more widely. There are more black faces on college campuses and in white-collar jobs. Negro representation in national and state legislatures is increasing.

Under these circumstances, what rational goal is served by squalid outbreaks of race hatred and other destructive instincts, such as the maniacal impulse to burn on a large scale—and mainly houses and stores that serve the Negro community? The net effect of these outbreaks has certainly been to retard, not to advance Negro progress, to discourage the forces of goodwill, and strengthen the bigots and racists, white and black.

Destruction on Campus

The student outbreaks at Co­lumbia, the University of Cali­fornia, and elsewhere are also mindless in the extreme, except for a nihilistic minority who wish to bring higher education to a halt. This is not to say that there are no legitimate student griev­ances, overcrowded facilities, poor food, and a skimping by some big-name professors of their basic function as teachers in favor of writing books and performing odd jobs for government agencies and foundations. Such grievances, when presented in a sensible and civilized way, will certainly win sympathy and redress, except in­sofar as they are rooted in one cause about which little can be done: the storming of admission doors by more students than uni­versities and colleges can com­fortably accommodate.

But the "causes" which promp­ted the radical minority of the Columbia students to break up the normal functioning of the uni­versity were almost incredibly trivial. There were two: the deci­sion of the University to build on its own property a gymnasium which would have benefited both the students and the adjacent Har­lem community; and the participa­tion of a few professors in proj­ects sponsored by an institute of defense analysis.

Neither of these issues was a proper matter of student concern; neither justified such obviously illegal doings as the sacking of the President’s office, the seizure of university property, the pro­voked clash with the police, the shouted obscenities across the campus. Indeed, this last conspicu­ous feature of the Columbia and other travesties of revolution might well warrant an inquiry by admissions officers as to the kind of homes from which the students were selected.

Outbreaks of Disorder Call for Stern Measures

Blaming everyone for wanton outbreaks of disorder except those actually responsible for these acts is not good morals, good logic, or good policy. Nor is it much use to attack that familiar scapegoat, "society." The proper course for the future is for the civil authori­ties to put down future riots, should these occur, with all nec­essary force.

As for university and college students, their right to hold meet­ings, to parade with placards, to picket peacefully for some cause should not be abridged, although it is hard to see how the pursuit of knowledge is advanced by try­ing to prevent the sale of Cali­fornia grapes or to interfere with fellow-students who wish to be in­terviewed for employment with a chemical company. A sharp line, however, should be drawn between peaceful demonstrations and those which involve trespassing on col­lege property, restraint on the free movement of individuals, and denial of the right of other stu­dents to attend classes. Young col­legians who fancy themselves in the role of Trotskys, Mao Tse­tungs, and Che Guevaras should be given a plain warning to cease and desist, or to transfer their juvenile playing of revolutionary games elsewhere.

Responsible Individuals

It is time to examine critically a number of assumptions that are bred of the myth of the American national collective guilt complex. For instance, it is sometimes taken for granted that racial fric­tion is unique in America. This disregards the numerous ethnic conflicts in other parts of the world, including the genocidal sav­agery of tribal feuds in such newly emancipated African lands as the Congo and Nigeria.

The war in Vietnam is de­nounced as an example of "Ameri­can imperialism." Vietnam is cer­tainly a sorry story and may havebeen a serious blunder. But there has never been the slightest Amer­ican desire to exercise imperialist domination over that country or to derive profit from that faraway land even remotely comparable with the sacrifice of blood and treasure in its jungles and rice paddies. Right or wrong, wise or unwise (and it may be a long time before a fair historical judgment is possible), the American mili­tary intervention has been for the purpose of warding off the estab­lishment of communist dictator­ship in South Vietnam and leaving the people of that tormented coun­try freedom to choose their own government and way of life.

The extreme forms which the American national guilt complex sometimes takes are as foolish and unwarranted as the old-fash­ioned spread-eagle oratory of United States chauvinism. It is useful to remember that guilt is always individual, never collec­tive.



Someone to Blame

So long as the attitude in society is that people are responsible for themselves, but that nature inevitably will limit what we can have, there is a chance that the discontent people feel will be directed at nature. But when we take the attitude that gov­ernment is all-powerful, that it’s only because somebody didn’t pass the right law that we’re in a bad way, then discontent will be directed at people.

MILTON FRIEDMAN, What’s Past Is Prologue 

Related Articles


{{}} - {{relArticle.pub_date | date : 'MMMM dd, yyyy'}} {{}} - {{relArticle.pub_date | date : 'MMMM dd, yyyy'}}
{{article.Topic.Topic}} {{article.Topic.Topic}}