Viewpoint: Collective Guilt in Iran


At the time of writing it is difficult to predict the outcome of the explosive Iranian crisis. But several important points can now be made.

In the first place, the crisis has uncovered some particularly ugly aspects of the American character, traits that apparently have festered beneath a gossamer-thin layer of civilized values. In particular, jingoism and racism. Throughout the country, and on countless college campuses, angry demonstrators have called for the "nuking" of Iran and for the deportation of all Iranian students from the United States. Iranians here—even citizens born here but who suffer the stigma of Iranian descent—have been harassed and beaten up.

In this climate of fear, many Iranians are understandably hiding their origin, protesting that they come from Iraq, Turkey, or indeed any place except the country that dare not speak its name. The calls for nuking and for deportation are also being made to the tune of a myriad of racial epithets, all of which seem to revolve around the darkish color of some Iranian skins and the alleged homosexuality of the ayatollah and even of the country itself (?)—all of which, at the very least, ignores the severe crackdown on homosexuality by the current regime.

The idea that the frenzy of the American public is motivated by compassion for the plight of the 50 hostages in Tehran simply won't wash. Thousands of people are murdered throughout the world almost continuously, from Cambodia to East Timor to Afghanistan and, until recently, to Uganda and the Central African Empire, with scarcely a murmur of protest from the indifferent American public. Even the plight of fellow Americans does not usually generate such furor; witness the fact that murders and kidnappings take place all the time in American cities without evoking bellows of fury and indignation from the American masses. No, the motivation is not compassion or justice but jingoism, the feeling that the national honor—that is, the honor of the American nation-state—has been offended: that the beak of the American eagle has, so to speak, been tweaked with impunity.

For its part, the cry for the deportation of Iranian students is, simply and malevolently, an expression of the very concept of collective guilt for which the world rightly condemned the Nazis when they punished the Czech resistance by destroying the village of Lidice. The fact that several hundred Iranian students in Tehran are guilty of kidnapping does not entail guilt for the many thousands of Iranian students in the United States. The barbaric concept of collective guilt was precisely the reasoning behind the American incarceration of all Japanese-American citizens in concentration camps in World War II; innocent Japanese-Americans were being "punished" for the crimes of their racial brethren at Pearl Harbor.

Already, the Carter administration has given in to some of the collective guilt hysteria by moving to deport Iranian student immigrants who are here illegally—that is, who have violated some clause of their visas. Most of these "criminals" are simply students who, in violation of our vicious protectionist immigration rules, are presuming to work at productive American jobs, either part-time or full-time, and even continuing to do so after graduation.

The Carter administration is also beginning to realize that not all Iranians are alike and that an estimated 30-40 percent of Iranian students in the United States are opposed to the Khomeini regime, this being precisely why they have been technically overstaying their term. Most of them are non-Moslems, largely Jews, while others are Christians, Zoroastrians, or Baha'i. If they are coercively deported back to Iran, they will be sent to probable jail or even death at the hands of the very Khomeini regime we are trying to punish. Even if these illegals are merely smoked out and forced to emerge from their current protective limbo to ask openly for asylum in the United States, this very act may jeopardize the lives and liberties of their families in Iran.

Collective guilt is also being imposed by other Carter actions in the Iranian crisis. Embargoing the import of oil injures both American consumers and innocent Iranian oil workers and other Iranians dependent on exports. Freezing Iranian bank deposits bails out Chase Manhattan and other banks that don't like paying their contractual deposits but injures other banks, American and European, which don't have Iranian loans that they, like Chase, can collect from the blocked deposits. And while the freeze technically applies only to Iranian government and central-bank accounts, most private Iranians or non-Iranian investors in Iran have to use the central bank, and so their accounts are blocked as well. Thus, the US government sanctions, indeed orders, a virtual confiscation of assets, and the long-run consequences for the American and European banking systems are dangerous and incalculable.

Similarly, any blockade of food imports into Iran would impose a devastating collective guilt on innocent Iranian civilians by bringing starvation to large numbers of people. Similar, and even more dangerous, problems would be entailed by any kind of military strike on Iran. For one thing, the Iranians were not dumb enough to emulate the Palestinians in Uganda who conveniently kept their hostages at the Entebbe airport, wide open for an Israeli commando air rescue.

But the important overall point is that "punishment" in foreign affairs is a very different and more tenuous matter than in police actions at home. A surgical strike against the ayatollah or against the embassy students is a very different matter from catching and punishing Richard Speck or Sam Berkowitz. In particular, and aside from international implications of war and peace, the police would never presume to catch a fleeing Speck or Berkowitz by strafing a crowded street with flame throwers or machine-gun tire.

In domestic actions, the police scrupulously and properly make sure that they do not injure innocent "civilians" in the process of hunting down the criminal. They know that it is more important to protect the innocent than to capture the guilty. No less should apply in foreign affairs. But since in foreign "punishment" it is impossible to avoid killing innocent parties, the United States must therefore refrain from the luxury of punishment or the exercise of military might.

The worst byproduct of the Iran affair will probably be the permanent return of a thirst for global intervention by the American public. Already, the New York Times reports that, as a result of the public fervor over Iran, the "post-Vietnam syndrome"—the realization of great perils and little benefit from intervention abroad, and particularly in the Third World—is ended. We are getting set to resume the arrogant policies of the pre-Vietnam era. The American public has always been quick to forget unpleasant lessons of the past (most of us still think we won the War of 1812!), and hence we may be doomed to repeat them.

Murray Rothbard is a professor of economics at Polytechnic Institute of New York and author of numerous articles and books on economics, history, and the libertarian movement.