Not Guilty, But Not Right!
A society and its culture are measured amongst other things by how it regulates killing. The recent not-guilty verdict for a teen shooter claiming self-defense raises great concern about the direction of our American society.
We can learn a great deal from the experience of the ancient Israelites. Their law allowed killing, even when forbidding murder (see the ten commandments). For example, capital punishment is allowed in response to certain crimes, i.e. murder (Exodus 21: 12). War is justified under defined conditions, and killing in self-defense can be forgiven depending on circumstances (Exodus 22: 2-3).
The sages of that time recognized that killing is an unfortunate reality whether accidental or intentional. Though, they also recognized that humans, individually and collectively, had a choice of attitude. The spectrum of choices runs from willing participation on one hand to profound circumspection on the other. The predominant attitude chosen at any given time indicates a culture’s ethical compass and social cohesiveness.
The sages of the Talmud clearly demonstrate this spectrum. They state that “If someone comes to kill you, rise and kill him/her first” (Sanhedrin 72a). In other words, if your life is in danger, you must preserve it by killing your attacker. While this stands to reason, the discussion does not end there. Elsewhere the Rabbis warn: “A Sanhedrin (court) that sentences a person to death (even if only) once in seven years, is considered (a) murderous (court)… Rabbi Tarfon and Rabbi Akiva say: “Had we been members of a Sanhedrin, no person would ever be put to death” (Mishna Makot 1). The ancient court had the authority to execute, yet was expected to make killing the rare exception, if any. Elsewhere in scripture, God proclaims human society “murderous”, and therefore floods the entire earth (Genesis 6:13). The Noah story teaches that a society, fast and loose with its killing, does not justify its own existence.
The ancient Israelites, thus teach us that a society’s institutions and culture, can and should set legal standards and social norms that discourage killing, even when technically justified. Last week’s not-guilty verdict seems to be another milestone in the growing American vigilante and gun culture that will lead us to mayhem and social breakdown.
The loose standards for a self-defense claim, enshrined into law by the Wisconsin legislator, are egregiously wrong. It enabled the rebranding of horribly poor judgement by an immature young man as justified self-defense. According to the spirit of Rabbi Tarfon and Rabbi Akiva’s pronouncement, these are a “murderous” legislator and by extension a “murderous” court. A tragic commentary indeed on the degrading moral state of Wisconsin’s civil society, as well as civil societies across America who have established similar irresponsible laws.
Killing a person may be justified at times, and yet such claims must meet a rigorously high bar, whether executed by government, by courts, or by private citizens defending themselves. Israeli society, where I was raised, and with which armed forces I served as a soldier, is a case in point. Life in Isreal is almost perpetually in a state of self-defense due to the ongoing violent conflict, yet moral standards apply. The state of Israel drafts, trains, and arms most of its citizens with high capacity firearms. Training is typically extensive and grueling. Rules of engagement are precise even under combat conditions. Safety procedures for handling weapons in battle and in civilian spaces are strict and enforced. Possession of firearms is highly regulated. The expectation for compliance with clear standards of responsibility, and accountability keep citizens safe and society civil. The wild-west-style US gun culture has little guardrails, if any, and pales by comparison.
Last week’s verdict has exposed the low bar for regulating killing in America. We are living through a historical moment marked by a growing flood of misguided gun and vigilante laws and norms. Our response to this moment will determine whether American democracy, American civil society, and American exceptionalism thrive or disintegrate. While the judicial procedures and the jury’s considerations that led to the young killer’s verdict seem to have been mostly proper, his acquittal on all charges is socially injurious and morally far from right.
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Rabbi Reuben Modek