By Rabbi Zvi Solomons
Human life is the most precious of all God’s creations. We are allowed even to violate Shabbat to preserve life, and there are only three mitzvot which can be transgressed when one’s life is threatened – idolatry, murder and sexual immorality. It is therefore interesting to ask the question, now that ISIS is rampant in Syrian and approaching the Israeli border, whether it is permitted to target terrorists and kill them.
Of course targeted killing is not something which Israel has had much of a problem with. Hollywood has expanded greatly on the killing of terrorists following the Munich massacre. The Talmud in Tractate Brachot 58a, tells us in the words of Rabbi Shila, that if a person comes to kill us, we should get up and kill them first.
This is based on Exodus 22, where a burglar who enters the house in the dark is liable to be killed by the householder in self-defence. From this is derived the principle of self-defence, which is a more effective measure than the law of the pursuer (rodef), who is theoretically killed by a third party to save him from sin, rather than to prevent him killing a person. This latter law, however, is an effective permission for a third party to kill a pursuer, one who is likely to commit a capital crime.
Of course, there must be provisos in allowing people to use remote equipment in this manner. A person who acts on this basis is exempt from damage resulting from their actions, to ensure that they are willing to provide such assistance. Likewise it is not necessary to warn the offender before killing them – this would be both impractical and might also provide an opportunity for escape.
The problem with targeted killing of terrorists and opponents is that innocent parties get caught up in the mayhem. This may be deliberate on the part of the target, or may be due to errors on the part of the drone operator. This means there have to be proper measures to ensure such errors are avoided as much as is possible.
Accidents will happen, we have to accept. It is up to us to do what we can to avoid them. Because of the problem of the euphamisticall- termed “collateral damage”, it might be wrong to kill even in these circumstances. However there is also a concept of Government Power – termed “Torat ha-melech” – which means that it is the Government’s right to carry out such killings even when they might be just on the wrong side of the line judicially speaking.
This is because a Government (literally a King) needs to ensure law and order. In an environment where there is rampant terror, and those responsible can be identified and eliminated before they act, there is a strong case for saying that they should be taken out. From the fear instilled in our enemies it is surely a great deterrent.