ISIS continues its march, and things in Iraq have deteriorated from bad, to worse, to gruesome. As reported on Fox News, “They (I.S.I.S.) have beheaded, mutilated, raped, stoned and even crucified those whose behavior is “unIslamic” or whose religious convictions displease them.” As a result, the U.S. military has just reengaged in Iraq, this time for humanitarian reasons and also to slow down ISIS’s military advances.
The reaction from some quarters has been that this is not enough. For example, Senator John McCain referred to the U.S. actions as a “pinprick that is meaningless and almost worse than nothing.” At first glance, Mr. McCain was boldly advocating that America act with the strength and world leadership for which it was once known.
At second glance, McCain’s words were little more than a purposely vague cheap shot taken at the president. Just what did he say? Did he mean that the U.S. should once again fight an all-out war in Iraq? I doubt it. So what then did he mean? I understand McCain’s problem. He wanted to make a grand public statement, and it’s always easier to criticize others than it is to articulate a specific policy and then stand by it.
This begs the question. Has anyone on the national scene proposed a coherent and detailed policy on what exactly the U.S. should or should not do when terrorists such as ISIS are acting with such unparalleled savagery?
In truth, whether the U.S should intervene when atrocities take place in other lands is a theoretical moral question. My book on how classical Jewish wisdom views modern political issues takes up this matter. The position taken therein is that when terrorists are killing others, there are two very different types of situations that call for two completely different responses.
There are times when people are being slaughtered but little else is affected. Stopping such killing is thus a purely altruistic endeavor, but it has nothing to do with protecting the USA. When troops are dispatched for this purpose, for each soldier sent, numerous lives will be saved. But some of those brave troops will die.
A basic Judeo-Christian ethic is that of not sacrificing one life in order to save many others. For example, we do not seize people against their will and subject them to potentially lethal medical experiments in order to find cures for deadly diseases. We do not even perform such experiments on criminals who are about to be executed.
The same ethic precludes sending soldiers into the line of fire to stop this first type of killing. It might indeed feel terrible to stand by and not dispatch soldiers while a slaughter is occurring. Yet, it can be equally painful when many die from illnesses because we do not forcibly conduct deadly experiments in order to find cures. It is not a case of callousness toward those who would be saved. Rather, it is simply that we do not play God and declare that it is worth it to sacrifice one person’s life in order to save many others.
Financial assistance could be offered to the victims, and private citizens should be free to volunteer for this humanitarian but dangerous mission. Governments, however, should not command their uniformed defense forces to risk their lives for this purpose.
When a local slaughter has the potential to mushroom to the point of threatening the U.S., it is an entirely different matter. It has been accepted since time immemorial that countries have a right and a duty to defend themselves from being conquered. At least in theory, this is probably why nations maintain armies. Stopping this type of carnage is thus a matter of self-preservation; it is a component of the U.S.’s overarching duty to protect itself from being savaged.
The atrocities committed by today’s Muslim terrorists are clearly of this second character. If ISIS is allowed to subdue large chunks of the Middle East, it will eventually direct its focus on conquering the West. In fact, they openly speak of forming a new caliphate. As such, all nations who are threatened by ISIS should act to stop them.
An ancient Jewish aphorism is, “When one is coming to kill you, rise up and kill him” (Talmud Sanhedrin 72a).
Coming implies that the person is merely on the way to posing a danger to life. The actual danger may not yet be at hand. Nevertheless, once the intent to kill is articulated, one must assume that an attempt will be made to carry out the threat.