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The Innocent Bystander_

May 9, 2009 | by Rabbi Noson Weisz

What gives a nation the right to defend itself -- if innocent civilians will be killed?

December 2, 2001 - Witnesses said today that American bombers flying over the cave complex where Osama bin Laden may be hiding, struck three nearby villages, killing dozens of civilians. Accounts suggest that at least several hundred civilians have been killed in Afghan villages since the American bombing of Taliban targets began eight weeks ago.

One of the most perplexing moral issues in the war against terrorism is the taking action against terrorists when, inevitably, innocent people who are not themselves involved in terror, will also become victims of the punishment/retaliation against the terrorists.

This is not a new issue. One of the most shocking incidents recorded in the Bible is the destruction of the city of Shechem by Shimon and Levi, in apparent retaliation for an act of terror -- the rape and kidnapping of their sister Dinah, by Shechem (the son of the ruler of the city of Shechem).

Maimonides substantiates the killings on the basis that Shechem was a lawless society which supported the terrorist, harbored him, and agreed to protect him against the retaliation. Nachmanides, meanwhile, explains that the Canaanite society (of which the city of Shechem was a part) had violated certain laws which carry a death penalty.

Both positions are conceptually entangled with the innocent bystander problem. Shimon and Levi must have known that many innocent people who had never transgressed against any serious law, and who did not condone Shechem's terrorist act, resided among the population they annihilated. What is more, they couldn't have known who was innocent and who was guilty, and in fact, they acted against the population indiscriminately, killing the entire male population.

When society is not the way it should be, the righteous suffer the tribulations of exile along with everyone else.

We find that God seems to follow the policy of collective punishment as well. The chastisement portions of the Torah (Leviticus 26 and Deut. 28) apply a collective principle in both directions. When society is good, the wicked enjoy prosperity along with the rest. When society is not the way it should be, the righteous suffer the tribulations of exile along with everyone else.

It would thus appear that even God doesn't subscribe to a justice policy based purely on individual considerations.

It is legitimate to wonder why. Especially in the case of God, who is all-seeing and all-powerful, this principle cannot be based on the practical difficulties of distinguishing between guilty and innocent parties living together in close proximity. There must be a good reason why following such a policy is morally justified.


In the next world on Judgment Day we will all stand before God as individuals. In this world we are all integral parts of our social group. Our cultural environment has far greater impact on our lives than do our physical surroundings, creating a two-way dependent relationship between the individual and his social group.

Each individual contributes to the collective power and prestige of the group by adding particular talents and activities to the collective whole. In turn, the resources of the collective (the sum total of all those individual contributions) map out the parameters of possibilities that life offers each individual.

As each individual contributes, he or she is justly regarded as a part of the intolerable mass.

When the collective whole is intolerable and evil, the individual is an inextricable part of the mixture -- by virtue of having added his capabilities and talents. Those committing the evil can only accomplish their designs by drawing on the collective resources available. As each individual contributes, he or she is justly regarded as a part of the intolerable mass.

But isn't collective punishment one of the most abhorrent tools of evil tyrannies?

Yes, but labels can be quite confusing. Historically, abhorrent collective punishment has arisen in situations that were unjust to begin with. For example, the Nazis employed collective punishment as a means of ruthlessly stamping out any budding resistance. If one concentration camp victim got out of line, 50 more inmates would be executed.

But concentration camps were an outrage to begin with. And such abhorrent phenomena necessarily survive only on the strength of the terror they inspire in their victims.

In fact, collective punishment is abhorrent primarily because it is a sub-branch of punishment, a system that is abhorrent in its entirety. Punishment for its own sake is always a valueless process, which corrects nothing and only serves to vent the pent-up rage of the person or people inflicting it.


Taking note of the futility of punishment for its own sake, Jewish tradition teaches that all Divine punishment is therapeutic, and all human punishment is defensive. God's punishments are in the nature of painful operations required to remove a spiritual cancer, and the court-ordered punishments of the Torah are all based on the principle of “you shall destroy the evil from your midst” (Deut. 13:6). This phrase is mentioned in the Torah no less than seven times, always in connection with capital punishment. Untreated evil is a festering sore that destroys healthy societies. The execution of evildoers is to be regarded as a defense mechanism.

All physical violence is rooted in spiritual evil. As Maimonides explained, in a society intolerant of baseless violence inflicted on defenseless victims, Shechem would have restrained his desire to rape Dinah. When society tolerates evil people, it raises the ceiling of what is considered conceivable behavior by those prone to violence, and ultimately this tolerance translates directly into injury inflicted on the innocent.

The Torah commands us to defend ourselves against such evil by destroying it from our midst.


All perpetrators of evil feel that their acts are justified. No doubt Shechem justified the rape of Dinah as a means of discouraging Jewish settlement. “Why should foreigners be allowed to come in and exploit the resources built up by the local population?” is a populist slogan that has been used countless times to justify atrocities.

Similarly, those who perpetrated the outrage of the Twin Towers massacre, or those who are attempting to kill with the anthrax virus, surely justify their heinous deeds on the basis of Jihad, a warped ideology that they hope will transform their violent actions into holy acts.

Any society that tolerates the granting of martyr status to terrorists is an evil society.

But evil must be judged objectively. It is against God's law to slaughter innocent people who are doing no harm. And even when such slaughter can be justified under God's law, it is still wrong to punish the guilty except in the special case when such punishment amounts to self-defense.

The perpetrators of the terrorist acts against the United States were certainly not defending themselves against any form of onslaught, and therefore there is no possible way to defend their actions or to view them in any light other than pure evil.

In contrast, the United States is in precisely this position of needing to defend itself and its citizens against an evil onslaught. Any society that tolerates the granting of martyr status to terrorists is an evil society. According to the Divine rules that apply to this world, such a society is culpable as a whole.

By Jewish standards, a nation has every right -- and even moral obligation -- to impose God's laws and punish the evil-doers, even if it is impossible to separate the innocent from the wicked, and inevitably some innocent bystanders must suffer.


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