Late and unlamented
by Jonathan Rosenblum
August 22, 2003
Idi Amin, former self-styled Lord of All the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes (sic) of the Sea, is dead. Anyone who received that news without a touch of sadness is morally deficient. Not sadness over Amin’s death, but that he died peacefully in his bed in Saudi Arabia. Estimates of the numbers of Ugandans killed by Amin during his eight-year reign of terror in the ‘70s range from 300,000-500,000.
I feel the same way about anyone who did not rejoice at the news that Uday and Qusay Hussein were on the receiving end of a TOW missile fired from a U.S. Apache helicopter.
My sentiments, however, are not universally shared. Living in Israel, perhaps I should not have been surprised that there were those who fretted that Uday and Qusay were the victims of an "extrajudicial" killing. How very noble those worrywarts must have felt to insist on proper procedures even for the likes of Uday and Qusay.
And how stupid. No doubt the Americans would have preferred Uday and Qusay alive, if only to extract from them information about their father’s whereabouts. But the bad guys do not always come out tamely with their hands up. In this case, the despicable duo had good reason to prefer dead to alive: They knew that millions of Iraqis would not be satisfied with anything less than watching them drawn and quartered. Without unnecessarily risking the lives of American soldiers -- ala Israel in Jenin -- there was no way to capture alive heavily armed men who preferred death.
But the legalists should not long detain us. What about those who lamented the passing of Uday and Qusay on the grounds that the death of any human being is a tragedy? Is it not sensitive to discern a spark of humanity worth mourning in Saddam’s offspring? Not really.
To understand why Idi Amin’s painless passage into hell should trouble us and why we should kick up our heels at the death of Uday and Qusay requires an understanding of the Torah concept of nekama, or vengeance. Almost without exception, the term nekama appears in Tanach in conjunction with G-d’s name. "Great is vengeance," say our Sages, "because it has been placed between two names of God, as it says in the verse `The Lord is the God of vengeance’."
The association of vengeance with G-d’s name makes clear that vengeance has nothing to do with revenge, the natural human desire to hurt those we perceive as having injured us. Rather vengeance is a manifestation of the Divine in history, God’s revelation of Himself as the dispenser of justice.
As the Midrash puts it, the Divine throne only became firmly established in the world when the Jewish people sang God’s praises at the Sea. Their joyous song was a consequence of watching the precision with which the suffering of each drowning Egyptian was meted out: The Egyptians either died instantaneously or slowly and painfully according to the degree with which they had afflicted the Jews in Egypt.
Divine vengeance, then, is the righting of an imbalance in the world, and refers equally to the punishment of the wicked and the reward of the righteous. When we merit to witness the enactment of justice our belief that there is both Justice and a Judge is strengthened.
Such moments of clarity are too rare. More often we are forced to live with the question to which even Moses was not given the answer: Why do the wicked prosper and the righteous suffer? The failure to see the scales balanced fills us with unease.
Thus the regret that Idi Amin did not end up feeding the same crocodiles to which he fed thousands of his countrymen or that Uday and Qusay did not fall feet first into one of the meat grinders into which it was their wont to dump alive those who displeased them. This is not sadism, but rather an expression of the desire to witness the precision of Divine justice. In the words of the Psalmist, "Almighty of vengeance, reveal Yourself " (Psalms 94:1).
THERE IS NOTHING ELEVATED about the ability to mourn the "souls" of the Hussein boys. Such ersatz sensitivity results from being insufficiently alive to the pain that Uday and Hussein inflicted, a lack of basic human empathy.
"He who is merciful when he should be cruel will end up being cruel when he should be merciful," say our Sages. Sympathy on the passing of tyrants is a form of misplaced mercy. Such moral obtuseness is all about us today.
Democratic presidential hopeful Howard Dean, for instance, pronounces the Iraq war not to have been worth one life. He and all those who have echoed those sentiments have no doubt convinced themselves that they are hypersensitive to the value of each human life, as if the choice were between the loss of one human life and none.
In the real world, however, that is rarely the choice. Nearly 300,000 Iraqis disappeared during the 23 years of Saddam’s regime – that is more than 12,000 a year, 240 a week. And that number does not even include the thousands of girls seized off the streets by goons to be raped by Uday or the hundreds of Iraqi athletes crippled and maimed for life in Uday’s torture chambers for failing to bring sufficient glory to the regime.
A morally serious argument against the war or the post-War effort to reform Iraqi society would minimally have to acknowledge its tacit acquiescence in the continued suffering of the Iraqi people. How can we explain the failure of so many on the Left to acknowledge the implications of their stance?
At least part of the answer lies in a lack of imaginative capacity to enter into the suffering of others. They have refused to let themselves dwell on what it is like to be a parent forced to watch your child tortured to extract your "confession," what it is like to spend your entire life afraid to enter into an intimate conversation with another human being for fear that he or she might be a government informer, what it is like to be walking down the street with a beloved cousin and to be suddenly surrounded by armed thugs who grab her and thrust her into a waiting Mercedes. And then multiply such scenarios millions of times of over.
Those who view themselves as noble beings, hypersensitive to every human life, too often turn out to merely lack a basic humanity. Their misplaced mercy masks a far greater cruelty.
Related Topics: Jewish Ethics, Peace Process
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