The Sceptic Blog

Random thoughts of a random chappy

The end does not justify the means (1) – Anti-terrorism

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  1. With much political attention being paid to anti-terrorist measures, two thoughts arising out of last week’s parashah (I wanted to send this issue out last Friday but encountered technical problems) indicate the Jewish attitude on particular aspects of the issue.
  2. Hashem creates people to rule over the natural world (Bereishis 1:26). Rashi points out that the word for to rule has an alternative possible root, the verb to go down. If humans are worthy, they will control the natural world. If not, they will descend beneath the level of the natural world and become controlled by it. We can use our intellect to use the natural resources of the world to perfect it for all. Or we can use our intellect to pursue individual self-gratification at the expense of others and become wholly controlled by the animal instincts inside us.
  3. It is tempting to apply torture to terrorist prisoners (perhaps helpfully re-labelled as moderate forms of coercive punishment) in order to elicit information capable of saving innocent life. But to do so – or to allow other States in effect to do so on our behalf – is to lower ourselves to the level of the terrorist, allowing the end to justify the means. I have no right to depart from the path of rational, sensitive and humane treatment of prisoners, even in order to protect my own life or the lives of others. The Torah confers a right and duty to kill an attacker before he can kill me or someone else, but not to torture him or otherwise to indulge in behaviour which when we describe it as bestial we wrong the animal kingdom in ascribing to it what is in fact a purely human form of cruelty.
  4. But there will be times when in order to protect innocent life I am obliged to do things which, while not inherently wrong or falling short of the standards required of humans created in the Divine image, nevertheless have undesirable consequences. The rabbis famously describe Adam as having committed the first sin for the sake of heaven. What is meant is that the first sin is not to be understood in the same way as later sins. We sin by using the free-will gained when Adam ate from the tree of knowledge of good and evil in order to choose to gratify our animal selfishness rather than to serve Hashem by keeping His laws. Adam sinned by doing that which God had already predicted that Adam would do (as is clear from a careful reading of Bereishis 2:16 & 17) with the primary purpose of acquiring free-will which can be used to demonstrate love of the Divine attributes and thereby to serve Hashem as he has commanded, but which had the inevitable consequence that the same freedom would sometimes be abused, causing pain and suffering for the innocent victims throughout the world and throughout the centuries.
  5. In Jewish thought, the end does not justify the means in the sense of enabling them to be disregarded or in the sense of making undesirable means inherently desirable. But we are required to be realistic, and to recognise that undesirable consequences will frequently flow from actions which are necessary in order to secure their primary purpose. When a terrorist is imprisoned, his or her family will suffer. When a terrorist is deported, he or she may suffer in the destination country (despite our compliance with our international obligations). These sufferings are not unimportant, nor are they to be in any sense welcomed as a form of deserved punishment: but they are to be accepted, with sensitivity, as the necessary and unavoidable consequences of taking reasonable and humane action to preserve the safety of the citizens for whom this country is responsible.
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Written by Daniel Greenberg

November 2, 2005 at 12:00 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Tagged with , , ,

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