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From the Left – Is Capital Punishment the Achilles Heel of Terrorists?

Not by a long shot. As a matter of fact, quite the opposite: it would play right into their best-laid plans. I can imagine the grins on their faces, as their murderous hands get busy sharpening their long knives. But let’s start from the beginning, shall we?

The key argument to come from my right is the hope that “Capital Punishment may help break this no-end-in-sight cycle of terror, put the terrorists on notice, and create a form of deterrence.” I find this hope to be hopeless. Here’s why: the cycle of terror, violence and bloodshed has nothing to do with deterrence. In fact, terrorists are happy to die for their cause. For them it’s not terror: it’s freedom fighting. It’s liberating their occupied lands, and all means are dedicated to achieve this goal. Why do they send all those suicide-bombers at us; exactly because they don’t value life the way we do. Should Israel execute captive terrorists, they will become instant martyrs! “Celebrity” of sorts. For each executed martyr, there will be a line the length of the Red Sea ready to copycat his/her violent acts. I call this the martyr syndrome.

The whole Arab world would surly erupt in rage. Jewish people will again be hanged in main Arab city squares. Any Israeli soldier captured—or for that matter, any Jewish person traveling or living in Arab countries or in Europe—will be shot and hanged immediately. No questions asked; no explanations accepted. But bear in mind this: in Israel there will have to be a due process, which will prolong the outcome. There will be a trail; there will be lawyers; there will be defense for the accused. During which time, the Arab world would be inflamed.

A word about the deterrent hypothesis. According to common belief, which the proponents of the death penalty (here in America in particular) successfully reinforce constantly, the executions of vicious murderers deter other potential murderers. But the fact of the matter is, this hypothesis is yet to be proven correct and effective. If it were, why is it then that America (practically alone among democratic countries to still execute people), remains so pervasively violent? Why does America lead all other westerns nations—and by a wide margin, mind you—in murders per capita? The simple equation here is more guns, which leads to more murders and violence, and then to more executions. That’s not deterrence; that’s a chain reaction of death and violence.

In closing, I would widen the scope a bit, since it never ceases to amaze me how easy it is for otherwise normal, peace-loving people — among them some deeply religious ones — to judge other people to be put under the guillotine. After all, we mortal humans are not the creators of life on this earth, and therefore should not assume the power and authority — in the name of God, country, or counter-terrorism — of taking some­one else’s life. It is not for us to determine. Those who do take upon themselves to do so, for whatever motive, reason or cause, are criminals. Or terrorists; call them what you will. But when we, as a civilized society — here and/or in Israel — assume this very power, we all become criminals. It is both wrong and immoral.

Which brings me to the quote from the Talmud: If Someone Comes to Kill You, Rise Up and Kill Him First.” It is indeed a basic, and justified modus operandi for the state of Israel and its arm forces. However, in the service of capital punishment and executions, the quotation my friend uses is totally misguided, since the executed terrorist would be a prisoner already. A captive. His deed was done already. Killing him would be a state-sanctioned execution. And it will only increase bloodshed and terrorisms.


20 Responses

  1. yona,
    by the way, i missed the syziphus reference. in what way are we like him?

  2. yona, i know you did not say so implicitly, but this is the only logical conclusion from your own words. “the strong ones call the shots… happens in nature and we are part of it”. we don’t like to call things by their real names, but this is a description of a “natural” order of things where the strong always win, and it is thus better to be strong, no? so, might is right. also, if nature is indeed indifferent to ethics, and what we are discussing here IS very much about ethics, why bring nature into it? unless you think that we have something to learn from nature after all. if so, what?
    i seem to recall rabbi khana saying that he only said out loud what the rest of the jews was thinking. this of course is pure nonsense — i have often thought of killing my neighbour’s irritating dog or even my own grandmother. so what? here i still am, a good neighbour and a loving grandchild. am i being unnatural for not acting out on my urges? certainly, and thank god for that.
    and what is a “fact supported throughout history’? the mighty winning? yes. true. like ghengis khan, who made a mountain of sculls. whould we emulate that, too?

  3. Kalevra, you are twisting my words, did not say that might is right , it is bad and unfair or whatever adjectives you would like to add but you can not deny that it is a fact supported throughout history.. Nature is indifferent to ethics. We are in constant built-in need to change it and that is great, and that is the way it should be, but we could not ignore Syziphus and his rock being rolled up the hill only to come down again.

  4. speaking of death penalty — what is the goal? what do we want to achieve with death penalty? revenge? deterrent? save a buck on upkeep of a prisoner?

  5. yona,
    your definition of terrorism will fit most wars, as usually civilian populations are very much involved, the leaders’ claims of “surgical” strikes nonwithstanding. i don’t know what is meant by “unconventional”, or why it should qualify as a terrorist act in and of itself. a guy stabbing a soldier in the back is a terrorost act, a pilot dropping a bomb isn’t. why?
    as to the “it happens in nature and we are part of it” — please. you imply that if it happens in nature it is ok (natural = good). however, cannibalism, incest and parasitism all happen in nature. should we consider these acceptable norms of behavior merely because they are natural? i think it was wittginstein who has said that people are enslaved by words, and this is a prime example. natural does NOtT automatically mean good. a snake bite is natural, as indeed is death, but most of us do not seek those out.
    as to “this has been the case throughout history”… well as far as i can see, people really have two ethical choices to make. one is to say “might is right”, in which case there is really nothing wrong with things like the holocaust — the germans could do it, so they did it. why complain?
    the other one is to accept that we can defy the “natural” urges originating in primate dominance politics or, put simply, those coming from the apes, and not let fear, xenophobia, vengefullness and other ugly and “natural” things we all share dictate our actual behavior.

  6. Kalevra, in principal I agree that we should start by defining terrorism, any ideas?. The problem is that there is no internationally agreed definition all we can say in my opinion is that it is an unconventional form of warfare military (and psychological) which usually involves unarmed civilians. This broad and fluid definition allows one country to call a group a terrorists while another country may refer to them as freedom fighters. What we are left with is really the country’s agenda, interests (strategic, etc), self preservation, etc. War on the other hand has (in theory at least) some guidelines associated with it (Geneva convention). There is no denying that the superpowers have more leaway than smaller countries in creating and adjusting their own definitions as they wish and as they see fit. But isn’t always been the case through history that the strong ones call the shots. Happens in nature and we are part of it….for better or for worse.

  7. gus, you say that if one is engaged in war, there should be no rules. from the german WWII perspective, they were at war with the “zionist conspiracy”, whatever the hell THAT means. so why resent the methods their went about the, ahem, solution to their problem? why resent 9/11? from bin laden’s perspective, it’s war, right?
    there can be only one law for all.

  8. who are the terrorists we are talking about? the islamic jihad? hamas? fatah? the tamil tigers? bahdr-meinhof? the shining path? all of the above? perhaps we can find a definition of a terrorist. for too long the term has been used rather blithely, as if it was well understood by all. in effect, all it does is allows one to fight them without a shred of understanding who they actually are, where they come from or what they really want. just ask any american, and most of the times you’ll get complete commitment to “fighting terror” without any comprehension as to who we are actually supposed to fight, as if terror was a creed by itself, like the cult of the Great Cthulhu, say. just as war is pursuit of political goals by other means (don’t you just love that little euphemism? it means killing people, right?), so does terrorism pursue political goals, albeit through revolting methods (killing people, no?).

  9. I appreciate your comments, dear kalevra, and generally agree with the points you’re trying to make. I will direct you, however, to this line in my opinion post: “For them it’s not terror: it’s freedom fighting. It’s liberating their occupied lands, and all means are dedicated to achieve this goal.” It addresses, though succisently, the issue you’re raising.


  10. perhaps we should try to define terrorism before we start talking about fighting it. i find it a little too pat to call any armed group we dislike terrorist, while those we DO like are ennobled as “freedom fighters.” perhaps they are all assholes (do forgive my vulgarity, but at the moment a loftier term for persons who kill other people eludes me), in which case we should say so, and stop playing footsie with them for fun and profit..
    to illustrate the point, wasn’t saddam hussein our best buddy when he was at war with iran? did we give a damn about him using gas? or boiling his political opponents, or whatever else he did for r&r? didn’t we supply him with weapons? will anyone own up to this?
    and weren’t we all buddy-buddy with the brave mujahaddin or afghanistan in the eighties, when they were kicking, with out help, some soviet butt? and wasn’t one of the, and pretty notable too, a guy called bin laden? or was he a gentle soul back then? there can be only one law.

  11. Gus – scoring points aside, the idea is to open a dialogue and explore new angles. The subject is capital punishment and like Hillel my question to you would first be: “what do you suggest: Death penalty for captured terrorists or not?” Your assertion that the fight against terrorism should be defined as an all out global war (versus just toothpick style “hunting for terrorists” as Hillel defines it) point to your probable answer. Avoiding defining the fight against terrorism as a FULL WAR allows Hillel to dodge addressing the always interesting, old age oxymoron, called a “moral war”.
    However, since all wars have to be viewed essentially as immoral acts (after all, some loss of life always occurs) capital punishment employed during a war should be considered a valid option. Hillel I guess prefers to define the global fight against terrorism as merely a nuisance and as such the option of capital punishment as a too high of a price.

    War is as old as civilization so the most one can hope for is that the periods between wars would be as long as possible. Gus – I did not say that I disagree with you, all I meant to say was that the war against terrorism can not be conducted exactly like a conventional war since terrorists do not have a country. But even that I guess is changing (rightly so in my opinion), ie. the US is attacking terrorists from the air on the border of Pakistan and Afghanistan. The effectiveness of such operations over time against a guerrila type fighters is questionable at best. If the US would attack Pakistan itself for allowing the Taliban to flourish in their country it might force Pakistan to rethink its policy of many years of tolerating the breeding of terrorists.

    Countries like Saudi Arabia do not necessarily applaud terrorist actions or support them like you said but they also seem to turn a blind eye towards their development and growth in their country and for that it should be held responsible as well. Since Saudi Arabia has the oil, they can get away with it (for now).

  12. Looks like I hit the jackpot because neither one of you liked my comments. You both missed my main point. War, and anything related to it such as terrorism, should be banned forever. That being said, I disagree with Hillel. Even though Yona initially says he disagrees with me, he finishes with what sounds like an endorsement of my comments. I’ll make one last point. The terrorist holding the gun is only the tip of a very large iceberg. The people they represent, and who applaud their actions, are just as guilty.

  13. Gus, you wrote:
    Will we fight back? Will we fight back under a set “rules of engagement”?

    Gus, let me remind you that terrorists do not have countries against which you may initiate a full blown war with tanks and airplanes, so your assertion that war should be waged until the “enemy has either surrendered unconditionally or has been completely vanquished”, is in my opinion misguided. Terrorists do not operate within defined boundaries which makes fighting terrorism a long and complex process. The one with the most patience and endurance wins.

    Furthermore, terrorists who roam the world do not sprout in a vacuum; initially they develop within countries (like Saudi Arabia, Iran, etc). Countries which allow terrorists to develop and organize within their own borders (either actively, covertly, or by turning a blind eye), should be held responsible in the same way as the terrorists themselves.

    Those countries should pay a price (militarily, economically, etc), maybe based on their level of effort in eradicating internal known terrorist-infrastructure. Countries that allow terrorist groups to develop within their borders should not be allowed to claim ignorance anymore.

  14. Yes, Gus, I enjoyed your “Machiavellian” comments; though personally, I wouldn’t like to live in a country that goes to war, or live by the rules you described. It will implode from within. And pointless or not, even by your own rules, what do you suggest: Death penalty to captured terrorist or not?
    As for hunting down terrorists–wherever, whenever–Israel is already engaged in this battle for many years. The last one to bite the dust was that snake in Syria not so long ago.

    Thanks for commenting,

  15. I am sure that both of you would like to find the best way to deal with these murderous actions and people but will never agree on the right way. I might have a better solution for the problem. For a while now we are trying to find the best way to deter “them” (the terrorists) so lets punish and deter them by serving a life sentence with no parol and add to that a very hard labor. I am sure no one would be happy to end up in a prison working their ass off with no virgins in site (not even one).
    Last point; They are using our “weaknesses” (western morals and culture) to harm us, we have to think out of the box if we want to win, the sooner the better .

  16. You both articulate, strong, but highly predictable arguments. What was so new or insightful? The paradigm you are both stuck in is analyzing the issue from a point of right vs wrong. Today’s terrorist is simply more sophisticated than the “rebels” from centuries before. What we have to first realize is that from our vantage point these are essentially acts of war. They already realize this very important point. That leaves only 2 points left to resolve. Will we fight back? Will we fight back under a set “rules of engagement”? I know you both may disagree with me, but I find it very difficult to believe there is anyone on this planet more opposed to war than myself. War is the most abominable behavior that man could ever engage in. It is absolutely horrid. That being said, I also believe that once war is thrust upon you there should NOT be ANY rules. 9-11 and the death of Mr. Pearl demonstrate only too well how Islamic terrorists have grasped this understanding. And so, for me, I find this debate pointless. War must be fought without mercy, without emotion, without politcal correctness and without rules. And once it starts it should only end when your enemy has either surrendered unconditionally or has been completely vanquished. It’s senseless to worry about collateral damage or whether you are discouraging others from taking up their cause. A more realistic debate would be to ask how far are you willing to go to hunt down and erradicate terrorists?

  17. – Dear Maury –

    I would like to weigh in on your last statement:

    you wrote:
    …if I thought capital punishment would meaningfully support Israel’s effort to live, ironically, in peace, I’d be an advocate. But I doubt that is the case.

    Let me share with you the following:
    In 2006 two Israeli soldiers were kidnapped at the border and taken to Lebanon by Hezbollah in order to force a prisoners exchange with Israel. One of the prisoners held by Israel has received four life sentences for perpetuating one of the most brutal terrorist attacks in the country’s history (one of the victims, a 4 year old girl was murdered by smashing her skull with the butt of his rifle).

    Following the kidnapping a war between Israel and Lebanon ensued. During the imprisonment the terrorist married (and later divorced) and graduated from the Open University of Israel with a degree in Social and Political Science. In 2008 Israel agreed to exchange the terrorist for the two kidnapped soldiers (the fact that the two were dead all along was revealed only at the last minute before the exchange took place). So you are right, capital punishment would not have meaningfully support Israel’s effort to live in peace but it could have made it a bit more difficult on the other side to set the above chain of events in motion, and that should count for something.

    Terrorism is a long, vicious. and evolving war of attrition, examining new options, adjusting to new conditions and situation is a must in my opinion. Capital punishment is another tool worth exploring. A side note: The terrorist that was released to Lebanon became a national hero upon his return.

  18. I agree, Maury, with your comments; specifically regarding the high likelihood of “executing the innocent.” This is one of the main reasons for my objection to the death penalty here in America. Of course, in Israel I don’t foresee such a problem in identifying the responsible terrorists. That’s why I didn’t mention it in my argument against it.

    Glad to read your comments.

  19. OK, as Yona, knows, not inclined to participate in blogs, in large part because of a shortage of time. But I do enjoy reading your exchanges.

    Will just say that I agree and disagree with both of you. Briefly:

    I have no moral objection to capital punishment but am against it because, in the domestic setting at least, there is too much risk and history of executing the innocent.

    The terrorist issue, if we are alluding to the Middle East–as opposed to, say , Belfast–is complicated by the fact that these seem to be societies virtually oriented toward death. And, I agree, threat of same likely does not carry the potential for deterrence that it might under different circumstances, in different societies.

    On balance, if I thought capital punishment would meaningfully support Israel’s effort to live, ironically, in peace, I’d be an advocate. But I doubt that is the case.

  20. You wrote;
    terrorists are happy to die for their cause. For them it’s not terror: it’s freedom fighting. It’s liberating their occupied lands

    Several observations: the majority of terrorists are not suicidal, for example many acts of terrorism are committed by remote control devices, kidnapping and murder of civilians, and by other means. Furthermore, leaders of terrorist groups are never suicidal, taking care of them should be a top priority since they are the one that finance, recruit, and train new terrorists (2) Israel is at the forefront in term of being effected by terrorism but it is not, by any means, the only country. I clearly indicated in my post that terrorism is worldwide problem (quote: “Reinstating capital punishment, even for a predetermined period, which would allow reassessing its effectiveness, would be one more tool in fighting “mega” terrorism around the world”). Terrorism is a menace in every corner of the world. Narrowing the whole issue of terror (in terms of whether or not to employ a capital punishment) to “liberating occupied lands” in Israel is a fallacy. That would be like blaming Israel for being a catalyst for every terrorist act around the world. I am sure that is not your intention.


    You Wrote:
    The whole Arab world would surly erupt in rage. Jewish people will again be hanged in main Arab city squares

    Let me remind you that the Arab (and the Muslim) world do not need a pretense for killing Jews, The journalist Daniel Pearl was compelled to say while in captivity, “My father is a Jew, my mother is a Jew, and I am a Jew,” before his throat was slit in 2002. Israel and the world can not afford to be held a hostage to the possibility of anger by Arabs and the Muslims. Countries should do what they think is right and consider their best interests including serving justice when dealing with terrorism. Being frozen into inaction because of fear of what the other side will do is caving in and a defeatist approach of first degree.


    You wrote
    After all, we mortal humans are not the creators of life on this earth, and therefore should not assume the power and authority — in the name of God, country, or counter-terrorism — of taking some¬one else’s life.

    A staunch pro-life supporter…good for you.

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