Bryan Caplan  

Why It Matters Whodunit

Again on intellectuals and cap... The Highs and Low of Today's W...
In modern America, every mass murder has two essential characteristics.

First, the number murdered.

Second, the group identity of the murderer.

And not necessarily in that order.  Whenever a mass murder pops up in the news, many viewers hasten to find out whodunit - where "whodunit" isn't a person, but an affiliation.  Is the murderer a Muslim?  A non-Muslim who used a gun?  A Democrat?  Republican?  Or just a lone nut who wasn't a "gun nut"?

On the surface, this seems like a depraved reaction to human suffering.  After the October 1 Last Vegas shooting, Historian Peter Shulman remarked:

And the great Phil Tetlock responded: On reflection, though, whodunit is tremendously important.  Why?  Because in our society, the routine reaction to mass murder is to try to punish millions of innocent people.  If the murderer is a Muslim, the public want to punish millions of peaceful Muslims by depriving them of the right to visit or live in the U.S. If the murderer is a non-Muslim who used a gun, the public want to punish millions of innocent gun-owners by making it harder for them to buy and sell firearms.  If the murderer is a Democrat, Republicans try to paint millions of innocent Democrats as sympathizers.  If the murderer is a Republican, Democrats try to paint millions of innocent Republicans as sympathizers.  Even if the murderer is apolitical and didn't use a gun, many want to punish innocent disturbed people by easing standards for involuntary psychiatric commitment.

As I wrote the last paragraph, I could already hear the voices in your head saying, "Innocent members of group X?  Don't make me laugh!" and "Innocent members of group X?  Well, too bad for them."  Maybe, but let's think it through.  If you accept the slogan, "Guns don't kill; people do," what's wrong with the slogan, "Islam doesn't kill; people do"?  If you respond, "Guns don't kill; people with guns do," what's wrong with, "Islam doesn't kill; people inspired by Islam do"?  The parallels are clear, no?

You could respond, "Collective punishment isn't fair, but it works."  But I almost never hear anyone say such things.  Why not?  Because dehumanizing the enemy is important for political victory, and activists want victory.  And in any case, the moral objections to collective punishment are so compelling most people would rather dodge them than confront them.

In a just society, mass murderers' group identity wouldn't matter.  Suicidal murderers would escape punishment, as they always do.  The rest would be tried and punished like any other criminal.  But sadly, our society refuses to hew to the path of justice.  If a mass murderer cheats the hangman, we're still out for blood.  Who's blood?  Well, whodunit?  Let's get them.

As usual, I greatly sympathize with Tetlock's perspective.  What kind of a person hears about a mass murder and says, "Whew!  At least the perp is on the other side"?  (Or even "Heh heh.  This could be our big chance!")  But the fundamental vice isn't basing your reaction on the identity of the murderer.  After all, some collective punishments are likely to be worse than others.  The fundamental vice is support for collective punishment itself.

COMMENTS (9 to date)
Richard writes:

The desire is not to punish a whole group, but (obviously) to identify characteristics of the criminal that will aid in future crime prevention.

Bryan might as well say that, in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor, we Americans wanted to know which country's military had attacked us solely so that we could "punish millions of innocent" Japanese and "dehumanize" them.

Come on Bryan. You're smarter than this.

Musca writes:

Related to Richard's comment, wanting to learn whether the perpetrator is a member of group X may stem from identifying the perpetrator as a "true" adherent of group X's beliefs.

In other words, for the ideologue (not a pejorative term), the "millions of innocent" members of group X may be inconsistent adherents of group X's beliefs. In that case, to survive, the primary concern is not whether we are unjustly punishing the inconsistent but overlooking the aspects of group X's beliefs that drive atrocity.

Matt C. writes:
Richard writes:

The desire is not to punish a whole group, but (obviously) to identify characteristics of the criminal that will aid in future crime prevention.

Bryan might as well say that, in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor, we Americans wanted to know which country's military had attacked us solely so that we could "punish millions of innocent" Japanese and "dehumanize" them.

To your first comment: Gun owners commit most gun crimes. That's almost tautological. That's not a characteristic that will prevent future crime, as the percentage of murderous gun owners is miniscule. Political opponents of gun ownership, however, want to use murders to paint gun ownership with a broad brush. In that, Bryan is correct.

To your second comment: false syllogism. In Pearl Harbor, the country of Japan was the attacker, not an individual Japanese person. You can counter with "all actions are individual in nature" but that would be avoiding the argument. When Japan attacks us we blame all Japanese nationals, yes. When a single person attacks us, it's ridiculous to blame the entire group.

I'll add that the current sexual harassment hysteria illustrates Bryan's point well. Conservatives accused of malfeasance are defended by conservatives and accused liberals are defended by liberals (there are exceptions). Nancy Pelosi the other day essentially said that John Conyers's malfeasance should be excused because he holds the proper political opinions (not her actual words, of course, but a fair representation of what she said).

MikeP writes:

There is a vast difference between a mass murderer who spent years being trained by a terrorist organization for the express purpose of delivering maximum disturbance to a society, and a lone operative, be he a militant Muslim or a loser with a grudge.

That's why the question is important. It isn't that hard.

Yaakov Schatz writes:

I do not think they want to punish an innocent group, but rather they want to prevent future murders. While you and I want to limit government to using force to cases in which it is clearly indisputably a cost effective way to save lives, most people want to prevent the next disaster, whatever it takes, as long as somebody else is paying the price.

For this purpose the public is willing to pay very high prices for very small gains and use filtering techniques which are about as effective as witchcraft.

I think therefore, that you should have started this post and every future post on this subject, with a short reminder that the measures being advocated fail any sensible cost - effect test.

Jason writes:

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Bedarz Iliachi writes:

To disbar entry of a particular class of persons into the country is not punishment, collective or otherwise.

True collective punishment was practiced by Bolsheviks, Nazis, present day Third World countries where generally masses of people are killed without due process.
But it is absurd to apply the word "collective punishment" when it simply means someone is denied a visa to visit USA.

Thaomas writes:

News of a mass murder using specialized weapons that fire large numbers of rounds in a short period of time does in my mind shift, if slightly, the cost benefit ratio toward making the acquisition of that kind of weapon more difficult.

Some activists regard "getting back" at the other side as more important than winning the next election. In PoliticalActivistWorld, a victory without revenge is pointless.


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