Putting the villain before the victim: The immorality of treating terrorists first

Fundamentally Freund: At a time when Israelis are being attacked on the streets in unprecedented fashion, we can't allow a misguided sense of medical morality to dictate behavior of first responders.

Ambulance (illustrative) (photo credit: screenshot)
Ambulance (illustrative)
(photo credit: screenshot)
This past week, the Israel Medical Association (IMA) unambiguously demonstrated that the possession of a degree in medicine does not necessarily imply sagacity or even common sense.
In a decision so profoundly disturbing that it beggars belief, the group reversed a policy in place since 2008, and declared that medical personnel must now provide care to victims based solely on the severity of their wounds, even if that means treating a terrorist before his victims.
This determination, as well as its timing, which comes at the height of a Palestinian wave of terrorism, marks a low point for what passes for medical ethics and public morality, and pressure should immediately be brought to bear on the IMA to reverse its scandalous ruling.
Seven years ago, the organization’s Ethics Board published guidelines based on the principle that “charity begins at home,” namely that the Israeli victims of a terrorist attack should receive medical attention prior to the Palestinian who perpetrated the assault against them.
This, after all, is a reasonable and logical standard, one that takes into account the moral context in which people are being treated, where there is a clear and unambiguous distinction to be drawn between those who harm the innocent and the innocent who have been harmed.
But recently, after a left-wing outfit which calls itself Physicians for Human Rights complained, the IMA retreated from its position, preferring instead to rely solely on the gravity of a person’s wounds as the determining factor in who should be treated first.
If this is what passes for scruples among Israel’s medical establishment, then something has gone terribly wrong with the system.
What the esteemed ethicists at the IMA fail to understand is that to equate the attacker with his victim, and to thereby strip the scene of its moral context, is itself an immoral act.
Terrorists may be human beings, but that isn’t their only defining characteristic. When someone picks up a knife or weapon or straps an explosive belt to his body and uses them to harm the innocent, the moral thing to do is to give preference to the victims, not the villain.
Those hurt by the terrorist did not choose to have a sharp instrument plunged into their bodies. The pain inflicted upon them was against their will, whereas the terrorist intentionally chose to cause injury, knowing full well that he too might end up wounded or dead.
To overlook this fundamental difference, and to declare the terrorist worthy of being treated first, is to place his agony and suffering on par with that of his targets, which is not only offensive but inherently unjust.
This is not about asking doctors to play God. It is about asking them to be human, and to take into account the moral setting and ethical milieu of the situation in which they find themselves.
At best, terrorists are “unlawful combatants” or “unprivileged belligerents” who are waging war on society. A doctor’s obligation is to heal, but as a member of society he also has a responsibility toward his fellow citizens, one that takes precedence over whatever obligation he might have towards an injured attacker bent on their destruction. This is so self-evident that it should not need to be stated, let alone discussed or debated, especially at a time when Palestinian terrorism has been striking on a daily basis.
Not surprisingly, the IMA’s decision prompted a firestorm of outrage, and rightly so.
A variety of leading rabbis denounced it as running counter to Jewish ethics, and Prof. Asa Kasher, an ethicist who authored the IDF’s Code of Conduct, said that it was “absurd” and “unthinkable.”
“There is more to the scene of a terrorist attack than pure medical considerations, as there should be,” Kasher said, adding, “What are we supposed to tell a victim’s family if he dies because we treated the terrorist first? That we’re sorry, but we had no choice but to treat the terrorist first? That’s absurd.”
Indeed it is.
Fortunately, not all first responders are willing to abide by the IMA’s ruling.
Yehuda Meshi-Zahav, head of the ZAKA volunteer emergency service organization, responded with a statement declaring, “We direct ZAKA volunteers to first treat the Jewish victims of a terror attack – without blinking an eye.”
“Only after they have received medical assistance,” he continued, “should they begin treating the murderous terrorist who carried out the attack.”
Nonetheless, Magen David Adom (MDA), the national emergency service, stubbornly insists on a policy similar to that put forward by the IMA. Just two months ago MDA’s director-general, Eli Bin, said in a radio interview that his group would treat terrorists first if they were more severely wounded, asserting that, “I don’t have the privilege to sort out the wounded.”
Nothing could be further from the truth, and Bin’s remarks are a disgrace to the cause that he claims to serve. Not only does MDA have such a “privilege,” it has a moral, ethical and Jewish obligation to assist the victims of terrorism first and their assailants second.
If you or anyone you know donates money or time to MDA, you should raise your voice in protest and demand that the organization return to its senses.
For at a time when Israelis are being attacked on the streets in unprecedented fashion, we cannot allow a misguided sense of medical morality to dictate the behavior of our first responders.
By all means, let them uphold the integrity of their profession. But they must never for a moment forget that their duty to their fellow Israelis should remain paramount.