Collective Punishment: Bad Idea

by Dan Knecht | 10/20/04 5:00am

I can usually tell how much fun a weekend was by the quantity of dried vomit on the bathroom floor. No doubt an unwanted gift from one inebriated freshman to the rest of his floormates. I stagger to the bathroom as most of my male floormates do, select a stall and hope that drunken freshman X did not choose the same stall the night before to empty the contents of his beer-ladened belly. Sometimes I guess right, other times, I am momentarily forced to bear witness to the vile remains of Keystone Light and of a quasi-digested ranch chicken filet sandwich. I say a silent prayer for the poor janitor forced to wrangle with the mess and continue my morning bathroom ritual as planned.

Within a few days all the male residents receive a smug BlitzMail message from my UGA. She threatens us with a bill if the boozehound doesn't stop booting. As much as the nasty stench of vomit perturbs me, I am even more irked by the halfhearted blitz and warning of financial collective punishment. Clearly, the vast majority of residents receiving the e-mail are not responsible for the slopped-up bathroom. And to hold us accountable for the lone actions of the inebriate is nothing short of audacious.

A few weeks ago, all the residents of the Topliff residence hall received a menacing blitz from one of employees of the Office of Residential Life stating that a lounge chair was stolen and if it weren't returned forthwith, we would all be charged. As a law-abiding user of the lounge, I was rightfully offended. And the thought of living in the vicinity of a petty criminal horrified me.

As days passed and the chair thief didn't release his hostage, the floor became increasingly agitated. Would we be subjected to collective punishment for the misdeeds of one hooligan hallmate? A few flyers sprouted up around the dorm demanding immediate release of the chair. Thankfully the maroon lounge chair miraculously appeared in one of the stairwells of the dorm. However, the chair fiasco did not end there. Though the chair turned up, it clogged pedestrian traffic in the stairway and posed as a "potential fire-hazard." In response, an ORL employee affixed a note onto the chair, demanding it be returned to its proper location in the lounge. The note also briefly defined the word "responsibility," as to jog our collective memory.

Alas, as days passed and the chair did not budge, it was evident that this would be a pyrrhic victory for ORL -- they would again invoke the threat of collective punishment. ORL was playing hardball. Upon the chair, they attach an official looking carbon-copied citation, which described the financial repercussions of this fire hazard. They even mentioned calling "Hanover Fire Department" to extract justice. Despite the fiery rhetoric, the chair hostage taker never returned the chair to its rightful location. The showdown ended as on a disappointing note; janitorial intervention and a bill slapped upon every resident for the hijinks of one immature resident.

These two risible incidences of resident stupidity are not uncommon, even at Dartmouth. In a communal living environment, drunken residents are inevitably going to act idiotically. However, collective punishment, through administrative billing of all hall residents, is usually more irritating than the original crime. First of all, when residents get billed for an obscenely messy bathroom, does the fee end up in the pocket of the unfortunate janitor required to clean up? I think not. Even if it does, students need not pay for a mess that they bear no responsibility for. It makes no sense.

Collective punishment has always been a controversial means of bringing justice to a perpetrator by punishing the community in which the perpetrator participates. With just a perfunctory glance, this sort of punishment seems counter-intuitive. All modern judicial systems outlaw such activity. They subscribe to the most basic principle of law called "individual penal responsibility." That means, only those individuals who personally committed the crime can be punished. Pretty straightforward, right? And indeed, in the vast majority of criminal cases, it works. However, there are some instances in which this is not feasible. During times of war, for example, armies have imposed curfews on enemy towns so as to punish the community for the actions of one or a few of its members. Although seemingly unjust, it is plausible that the community as a whole supported the perpetrator, or at least condoned the perpetrator's actions by turning a blind eye to the crime. If this is the case, no longer is the community being subjected to collective punishment as much as punishment for complicity, which has more legal gravitas. As one can see by this example, however, it is difficult to delineate between the two types of punishment, one being acceptable, and the other, not.

For ORL, I do not see the how communal fines for dorm damage is anything but collective punishment. First of all, childish acts of damage against the dorm are usually committed by a lone perpetrator, or by one resident and a few non-resident abetters. Their activity is reliant on anonymity; hence the existence of witnesses yet alone resident accomplices, is rare. In fact, I am sure if residents witnessed the act they would either attempt to stop it or report to it to their UGA or their community director. Fining entire floors for the activity of a lone perpetrator not only fails to punish the perpetrator, but also leads to recidivism due to the lack of individual accountability. Fining also generates ill will towards ORL for unfairly punishing the innocent.

ORL's policy of collective fining for dorm damage is downright antiquated. Instead, hold UGAs partially responsible for the activities of their residents. Do not fine them, although this action would be considered more "just" than fining the whole floor since they are paid to supervise their residents, but encourage them to discuss problems with their residents and devise creative ways to stymie dorm damage. However, the final onus is on us Dartmouth students, who need to act mature enough to grow out of these childish antics.

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