Shooting Down the Plane

Shortly after the September 11 terror attacks, I read that if U.S. intelligence had known that a commercial plane was on a mission to crash into the White House, they would have shot down the plane, thereby killing the passengers, but saving countless other lives.

Yet how can anyone know for certain that the hijacked airplane is going to crash? Maybe the passengers will take control at the last minute, or the hijackers might have a moment of "sanity" and decide not to kill themselves. Therefore how can it ever be permitted to shoot down a plane?

What does Jewish law say about such a scenario?

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

When the intelligence information establishes with certainty that the plane will crash, then we must try to save additional people that are liable to be killed, and the authorities are obligated to down the plane.

A comparable case is discussed by Maimonides: Government officers approached a group of people and demanded that one person be handed over for death. The officers declare that unless someone is given over, they will kill the entire group. If the officers do not request a specific person, but rather ask for "any one person" from the group, we are not permitted to hand anyone over. (Although someone would be permitted to volunteer, to save the rest of the group.)

However, if the officers designate a particular person, then Jewish law says he should be handed over.

Applying this to the terrorist scenario: Once other planes have crashed, the evidence is sufficient to say that the people on the plane have already been "designated for death," and therefore we can down the plane in order to save others.

As for the possibility of a last-minute reversal:

The Talmud speaks of the "Rodef," the pursuer. For example, if person-A is running after person-B with a gun, with an obvious intention to kill an innocent person, the Talmud instructs us to save the life of "B" by injuring (or if necessary, killing) person-A.

Here we could ask the same question: Perhaps "A" will change his mind before killing "B." The answer is that since it is beyond reasonable doubt that "B" will be killed, that is sufficient to put "A" out of commission.

Of course, a miracle can always happen. But we do not rely on miracles and therefore the authorities only need to make a reasonable assessment of the most likely inevitability.

All of this gives credence to the heroic actions of the men on Flight 93 who fought with the terrorists, causing the fourth plane to crash in Pennsylvania.

(sources: Talmud – Sanhedrin 73a; Maimonides – Fundamentals of Torah 5:5)

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