I can't tell you how often I hear the adage "Two wrongs don't make a right” improperly thrown around. It's usually a wise saying to fighting schoolchildren, but just because two actions are similar doesn't mean their moral justifications (or lack thereof) must also be.
For example, taking a life is not morally the same across the board. Is the murder of an innocent child caught in gang cross-fire the same as killing a terrorist? Is the assassination of the president of the United States equal to the killing of Hitler?
No one is in favor of violent death; no one likes the killing of other human beings. But the choice to not fight evil may be the most immoral position of all.
A jury in California just recommended that Scott Peterson receive the death penalty for the remorseless killing of his wife and unborn child. Peterson's mother, lying ill in bed, begs “don't do this to me.” We can empathize with the mother, yet society may still have to put her son to death.
Without arguing the validity of capital punishment - there are many attendant issues that go far beyond the scope of this short article* - we can recognize that compassion for victims and their families takes precedence over compassion for the evil-doer. That too much compassion for the wicked distorts our perspective and confuses our values.
Jews are not pacifists. Despite negative stereotypes, we believe in fighting our oppressors. We believe in fighting for our faith, our people, our land. The Torah and the book of Joshua are rife with battles. We are neither cowards and doves, nor hawks and warmongers. But in certain times and certain situations, there is a need to fight. Your family, your people, your values may be at stake.
An oft-quoted variation on two wrongs don't make a right is “violence doesn't solve anything.” But at times that is the only way that tyrannical dictators are stopped (think Hitler), aggressive nations are repelled, slavery is abolished. Even winning the battle against crime frequently requires tough measures. Of course we must not be overeager or trigger-happy, and objective, sagacious deliberations are in order, but there is, unfortunately, a time and place.
Unfortunately - because it's a painful tragedy to see what other human beings can become. Unfortunately - because we would prefer that our enemies repent obviating the need for drastic action. Unfortunately - because of the toll it takes on us.
Golda Meir is alleged to have said, “I can forgive the Arabs for murdering our children, but not for turning our children into murderers.”
Counteracting with Kindness
What is the price we pay in this bloody battle? Is there any antidote? I take comfort from two sources - the Torah and (l'havdil) my son's Animorphs books.
The Animorphs series (I confess to having read about three pages) invokes the classic fight of good versus evil. Evil aliens are trying to take over the earth and four children, with the particular ability to morph into animals, must try to save it. They accept the responsibility (a lesson in and of itself) but not without pain. They accept the violence, but not without remorse. The violence gives no pleasure but they recognize the necessity.
How do they respond to the potential hardening of the soul?
If you are in danger of developing a callous on your soul, open yourself up to giving.
One of the characters, Rachel, cares for wounded animals. In healing them, she believes she heals herself.
Destroy evil, then go out and help someone in need. If you are in danger of developing a callous on your soul, open yourself up to giving - to children, to the poor, to the uneducated, to the innocent. Surely this can counter the requisite killing of the inhumane.
But far more powerful than Animorphs is the Almighty's promise to His people. In the book of Deuteronomy, He exhorts the children of Israel to completely destroy idolatrous cities. No one and nothing should remain. And then the verse says “…and He will give you mercy and be merciful to you…” (Deut. 13:18).
The commentator, the Ohr HaChaim, explains the seeming redundancy. The punishment of the idolatrous city could easily make the Jewish people indifferent to suffering. One could expect it to erode their natural feelings of mercy and make them heartless and cruel. In response to this fear, God promises to infuse them with new feelings of sensitivity and compassion. Once the people have become more merciful than ever, they will deserve to be treated mercifully by God.
This is not a license to kill. It is a recognition that there are times where taking a life is the appropriate, moral and compassionate thing to do. And we shouldn't balk at doing our duty.
The Talmud teaches that if you are compassionate to the cruel, you will end up being cruel to the kind. Life may not be black and white but it must be well thought-out shades of gray.
As King Solomon wrote in Ecclesiastes (and as immortalized in folk song), “To everything there is a season… a time for war and a time for peace” (3:1,8).
We pray, now as always, that today's battle will be the final one, and that lasting peace will ensue.
*This article should in no way be construed as taking a position on the death penalty vis-à-vis Western courts. The Torah position on this issue is very complex, and this article is only addressing the topic of fighting evil.