Grumpy Old Man: That tug-of-war

Unorthodox battlefields make rules of engagement a challenge. Outside interference, though, can render them unintelligible.

Splitscreen: Palestinian with slingshot at demonstration and IDF soldier who shot dead a wounded terrorist in Hebron (photo credit: REUTERS)
Splitscreen: Palestinian with slingshot at demonstration and IDF soldier who shot dead a wounded terrorist in Hebron
(photo credit: REUTERS)
 It seems there are plenty of people out there who are entirely sure that if anything untoward happened after two Palestinians stabbed and slightly wounded an IDF soldier on March 24 in Hebron, it was that someone was there with a video camera. Or that the press blew it up into a major story.
As a journalist, I am certainly bothered by all the reports stating that the wounded terrorist was lying “prone” on the ground. They indicate that some of my colleagues are unaware of the word “supine” or, far worse, that they might not have even looked at the footage.
But I’m much more worried about the many people who straight away came to some sort of conclusion about the soldier who finished the terrorist off.
There are those who believe he is a war criminal. This conclusion might be a bit much, but considering what we already know about the chain of events and some of the details filtering in about the accused himself, his actions were highly disturbing, to say the least, and warrant deep scrutiny. Far more disturbing, though, is the fact that many others consider him a hero.
ONCE UPON a time, warfare was pretty straightforward. From the grunt’s perspective, the idea was to kill them before they killed you and then go home and get on with your life. Giving a pep talk to his troops during World War II, Gen. George S. Patton, the controversial but effective US military leader, put it pretty succinctly: “No bastard ever won a war by dying for his country. You won it by making the other poor dumb bastard die for his country.”
No slick euphemisms, no snappy synonyms.
No “neutralize” or “put out of action.” Just kill him. And it’s true to this day – when you’re on a classic battlefield, that is. But when you’re not, and when the enemy is not in uniform and is armed with something deadly yet decidedly smaller and less dangerous than a T-72, it’s not so straightforward. This is especially true when the arena is full of cameras, whether it’s for the 24-hour news cycle or the human rights groups that think fairness and proportionality should be intrinsic values in warfare.
It’s getting so complicated that a soldier can hardly dispatch anyone he sees as a direct and immediate threat without first revisiting a somewhat bewildering array of rules of engagement and, for good measure, consulting his lawyer.
It doesn’t matter that most soldiers, like most normative people in the general population, are equipped with a brain having two distinct lobes: a “good” lobe, one that’s filled with ethics and decency and tasked with social preservation, and a “smart” lobe, filled with cold logic and tasked with preservation of a more personal nature. In times of doubt, which is to say in times of armed conflict, the lobe with the logic will generally scream a lot more loudly.
Of course, there are those with underdeveloped or even nonexistent good lobes. But even those whose lobes are fairly well balanced can find the going awfully tough when there’s interference from people whose way of thinking goes roughly as follows: When the other guy is an Arab, it’s safe to assume in light of our long, sad history that he’s out to kill you.
So kill him first. Full stop.
Such outside interference comes from everywhere. It comes from parents and others in the immediate community, people like you and me who think we know better than the defense minister and chief of staff. But it also comes from public figures, including politicians and rabbis. These are highly visible and vocal people whose words carry more weight and often go much deeper into our subconscious.
THERE’S NO specific time or place we can point to, but I’d venture to say that former internal security minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch’s comments on Wednesday, November 5, 2014, would be a good place to start.
On that day, 38-year-old Ibrahim al- Acri, driving a white commercial van, plowed into pedestrians along the light rail line in east Jerusalem, killing a Druse border cop and a yeshiva student, and leaving over a dozen more people injured.
Having crashed the van, he jumped out with a crowbar and threatened bystanders until he was shot and killed by another border cop.
The incident was caught by surveillance cameras. Using the footage, philosophers will be able to debate for centuries to come as to whether Acri could have been stopped with less lethal force, but there remains no doubt as to what he was in the midst of doing, and that he had to be stopped.
Aharonovitch quickly showed up.
Turning to the press after being debriefed by officers at the scene, he said: “The actions of the Border Police officer who chased down and quickly killed the terrorist were correct and professional, and this is the way I would like such incidents to end. The sentence for a terrorist who harms civilians should be death.”
A soldier or a cop who is the product of a liberal environment might say in response: Wait a minute. It’s one thing to stop the act, but it’s another thing entirely for an individual to also make himself both judge and executioner. On the other hand, someone who comes from an environment teaching mostly that we live in a tough, cruel neighborhood will see a lot of logic in Aharonovitch’s words, while someone coming from a deeply religious world might be reminded of all the teachings about the evil Amalekites.
But little by little, the message seeps in.
Even if you’re the owner of the biggest bleeding heart, when it’s you out there on the front lines of the war against terrorism, the tendency remains one of self-preservation and the preservation of those immediately around you. But for those whose hearts bleed less or not at all, the message introduces at least a bit of slack in the rope that’s used in the tugof- war between those two distinct zones in our brain. And when someone of high standing says what Aharonovitch said, the rope can pretty much drop altogether.
What we too often forget is that the taut rope between our good lobe and our smart lobe plays a central role in maintaining the tension that is inherent in owning and operating a democratic and free society.
FOLLOWING THE incident in Hebron, IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Gadi Eisenkot wrote a message to soldiers, saying in part: “Following the IDF’s code [of ethics] is not a right, but a requirement in order to maintain the IDF’s status as the national army of a Jewish and democratic state.”
The military’s values, he said, “rest on a long Jewish tradition of being a nation that values life.”
But to quote the ever-inquisitive and lucid mind of Yediot Aharonot columnist Nahum Barnea, “A new generation of vigilantes has arisen… In their eyes, cold-blooded murder is an act of heroism; obeying army regulations is defeatism.”
To our deep detriment, new rules and regulations are being drawn up by our individual words and deeds. We seem to be writing them down as we go along, thinking not just while on our feet, but while in a flat-out sprint, when in reality, these are issues that need to be debated, redebated and debated yet again before there’s even a first draft.
Those lobes of ours have to be kept sharp, and the rope must always remain taut. It’s time to sit down, take a breath and think hard, both about where we’re going with all this, and about where we want to be.