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Opinion

British riots: Cameron clashes with basic law

By proposing that rioters and their families be evicted from public housing, British Prime Minister Cameron is promoting collective punishment for the acts of an individual – an ancient injustice that the Old Testament rejected.

By Ronald P. Sokol / August 23, 2011



Puyricard, France

British Leader Seeks Public Housing Evictions for Rioters and Their Families” reads a New York Times headline from Aug. 12. It was Prime Minister David Cameron’s response to what his government said was the worst civil disorder in a generation.

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The prime minister’s pronouncements both to the House of Commons and on television suggest a troubling disregard of what is the most basic axiom of any legal system – guilt is individual. No democratic nation today sanctions collective guilt. Yet the prime minister’s demeaning reference to “phoney concerns about human rights” implied that such claims are not to be treated as real.

His advocating that families be expelled from public housing if one of their members has committed a crime is not the creation of a brilliant new punishment, but a reversion to the ancient practice of a blood feud. By the time of the Old Testament, which called for “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,” the blood feud and collective punishment had been rejected.

The rule that guilt is individual is so deeply embedded in the concept of law that it does not appear in the United States Constitution; nor in the French Declaration of the Rights of Man, nor in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, nor in the European Convention on Human Rights. It is a principle so axiomatic that every nation which possesses a system of law simply assumes it.

When the mafia executes an entire family, including wives, brothers, sisters and their children because someone in that family has betrayed them, we are appalled because it not only punishes the person who violated its code, but goes well beyond that in practicing the far more ancient, pre-law custom of blood guilt.

During the era of the Soviet Union the public prosecutor in a novel of that period argues that “hundreds of innocents should be condemned rather than allow one enemy to go free.” That kind of Soviet law argument rejected all that is encompassed by the term “the rule of law.” So too does a provision in the German Penal Code of the 1930s that gave judges the power to punish acts not prohibited by law. The judge needed only to find that the act offended “the sound sense of the people.”

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