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Tuesday, September 07, 2004

…Lifnei Iver

[With apologies to the countless people with a much better grasp of Jewish law than I will ever have]

The translation of today’s title is literally, “…Before a blind person”, which is shorthand for the prohibition (in Jewish law) against 'placing a stumbling block in front of someone who is blind'.

This may sound like a fairly easy law not to break… I mean, when was the last time you had the opportunity, much less the urge, to trip a blind guy, right?

But as in most things related to Jewish law (and Jewish legal scholarship in general), nothing is as simple as it first appears. Most scholars explain ‘lifnei iver’ as a prohibition against causing someone to transgress in a way that they might be particularly susceptible to stumbling.

For instance, one could argue that a poor, but honest, person might be tempted to steal if you continuously left large amounts of money unattended in places they are likely to find it. Another example would be putting a plate full of delicious food in front of someone on Yom Kippur (or any other fast day) when they might (through ignorance or hunger) be tempted to eat.

I mention this particular concept in Jewish law because it occurred to me that the world seems to be taking ‘lifnei iver’ to an absurd length when it comes to terrorists and terrorism.

Allow me to explain:

If you go into a bad neighborhood and get mugged… there is sometimes the temptation to say it happened because you were walking at night in a place you shouldn’t have been. In short, we reason that the responsibility becomes blurred because we placed an irresistible temptation in front of the person who mugged us. But this is not ‘lifnei iveer’! It is flawed rationalization, because truly criminal behavior is the responsibility of the criminal. Period.

Terrorism is vandalism, mugging and murder on a much larger scale - and on a much larger stage – but it is still simply another form of criminal activity. So why, even after the most heinous act of terrorism, is the world so anxious to rationalize that the victims somehow invited the criminal assault on themselves… stretching the concept of ‘lifnei iver’ to the breaking point and beyond?

Take the most recent villainy in Russia. Instead of placing all of the blame where it rightly belongs (on the terrorists), the world (and even Putin) wonders aloud if perhaps the Russians didn’t do something… or perhaps not do something… to cause this to happen: “If only there had been better intelligence”…” if only there had been better security”… “if only the policies in Chechnya had been more humane”… “if only…”

What far too few people are saying is what must be said: That the terrorists did not attack because the Russians placed an irresistible temptation in their path. They attacked because that is what they wanted to… they are vandals, criminals and killers… and they respect no law or boundary.

In my humble opinion, the only blind people are those who still feel that law-abiding nations should have to undergo self-flagellation because they fall victim to the international equivalent of a mugging.

Posted by David Bogner on September 7, 2004 | Permalink


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While I think that the Beslan school terrorist attacks - like most terrorist attacks - were an unforgivable act of horror, I can't agree with your basic point here.

I think the difference between our views is that I don't see the attitude that says that maybe those with power also have a degree of responsibility here - specifically Russia, in this case, the US and others in other cases - is implying that they put temptation in the terrorists way. Nor that those terrorists are not 'vandals, criminals and killers'.

On the contrary, I think its about asking *why* they are killers, what actions of ours contributed to making them that way, and by extension, what can we do to STOP making more of them. Or what can we stop doing that is currently contributing to the development of terrorism.

Which is different to saying that the terrorists themselves do not have to take responsibilty for their actions. I just think everyone else should too.

Posted by: Kay | Sep 7, 2004 12:37:56 PM

In response to Kay's comments:

Kay, IMHO, you missed (entirely, BTW) the essence of David's post, which I believe to be, "THERE ARE NO ACCEPTABLE WHY'S" for these acts. There is nothing that justifies the slaughter of innocent civilians – whether in Russia, Israel, Rwanda, or ANYWHERE.

Your attitude that our (collective society) actions, or the actions of our governments, create terrorists is EXACTLY the attitude which prevents the ability of of our otherwise (so called) civilized world from putting an end to this evil enterprise.

Governments and collective societies must be responsible to their constituencies and their members. However, there is no justification EVER for any disenfranchised member(s) to use terrorism to effect change or to protest policy.

By suggesting that terrorism has a justifiable cause you run the risk of becoming the very stumbling block that this post describes....

Posted by: zahava | Sep 7, 2004 1:04:40 PM

Kay... in the case of some terrorists, you could play that 'which came first, the chicken or the egg', game. No doubt, there are groups of terrorists throughout the world who have been forced into action by mistreatment.

But the ugly swath of destruction that Islam has wrought throughout it's history, regardless of real or imagined insults, cannot be excused ignored.

I pray that you... sitting in the relative safety of Australia... will continue to enjoy the luxury of your current point of view.

Posted by: David | Sep 7, 2004 1:19:56 PM

I agree that there are no valid excuses for terrorism. However, I disagree with part of your argument.

If I leave for vacation and leave my door wide open for two weeks, and someone robs my house, it's still robbery even though my door was open. The thief has committed a crime and is culpable for his act. He has no excuse for walking in and taking my things. Nevertheless, it is stupid to leave the door open. The blame for the crime would be on the perpetrator, but I would be revealed to be a naive person who can't think ahead, who doesn't take into account that there are evil people in the world.

Similarly, the only people to blame for terrorism are the terrorists. However, by not engaging in more or better intelligence, or by provoking evil people in certain ways, governments reveal themselves to be naive, ineffective, or without vision -- they reveal themselves to be negligent in their job of protecing their citizens from evil forces in the world.

That doesn't mean the evil forces have an excuse. It means that good people must act in ways that take into account the presence of the bad.

That's why we tell college women that if they are going to frat parties, to go in groups and look out for each other, and not to get drunk and slip into a bedroom with a guy they just met. If they get raped, it is not their fault. It is the crime of the rapist. But certain behavior is stupid, even if it is not evil.

Posted by: Sarah | Sep 7, 2004 5:34:11 PM

I am not sure if I can share this view. But more than that, I'd like to know how you came up with this and what actually was your motivation. A shiur? With whom? A read or article? By whom? A meditation by yourself? Why?

Care to let us know the source? :)

Posted by: mademoiselle a. | Sep 8, 2004 12:32:46 AM

Mademoiselle a... like most of what I write, this occured to me quite suddenly... while I was following some of the hand wringing surrounding the attack in Russia.

That it seems to have plucked a contrarian nerve in many of my readers does not make me regret having written it down.

Posted by: David | Sep 8, 2004 12:47:07 AM

"However, there is no justification EVER for any disenfranchised member(s) to use terrorism to effect change or to protest policy."

No there's not, I agree. But Zahava, I think you missed my point. I am not suggesting that terrorists actions are in anyway excusable. But I am saying that ignoring our own culpability is also wrong.

I like what Sarah said but the analogy doesn't quite work for me. I'd like to add another person to the equation. If she leaves her front door open while going on holidays she may be foolish, but certainly isn't to blame for the act of the thieves who rob her house. However, if there is someone else involved, someone who say, taunts the thieves about their poverty, knowing that this will in all likelihood push them over the edge into criminal behaviour, are we also to hold them blameless, because they didn't actually commit the act?

Now, possibly this is not quite an accurate analogy either - maybe the coalition of the willing honestly couldn't see where their actions were taking them. I'm not sure that that leaves them blameless. I am sure that if those in power continue with the same behaviours and attitudes terrorism will remain alive and well.

Posted by: Kay | Sep 8, 2004 1:39:59 AM

Maybe Brian of Soul Tonic says it better than I did:

"Let me be clear. Terrorism is absolutely inexcuseable. No question.

"However, it is totally naive to not think we have not played a role in what is happening. Looking for the reasons someone would want to attack us is not weakness it is called intelligence. There is a reason that a country, like say, Finland (or many others) aren't under constant threat.

"Now certainly being the most powerfull nation on earth paints a big target, but so do our actions. As a nation, some of our policies have been morally questionable."

Posted by: Kay | Sep 8, 2004 2:27:21 AM

Kay... first of all, thank you for adding your well reasoned opinion to the mix. I genuinely appreciate it when people who do not share my views provide intellectually honest arguments to support their positions.

However I have to ask you a couple of questions to make sure I understand you correctly:

1. If I drive a shiny new Saab into a poor neighborhood (we'll assume for the sake of argument that I have a good reason to be there... I'm not just cruising to show off the car), is my presense, and the high value of the car, what you mean by 'taunting the thieves'? Because if you feel that simply being better off than those who are making all the trouble is a valid reason for the violence, I have to part ways with you. I won't apologize for progress or success.

2. You brought the example of Finland... and I'm glad you did. Do you think that perhaps there is a connection between the ethnic make-up of Finland (i.e. a relatively small Muslim population), its location (one of the more remote locations from large Arab/Muslim populations) and history (Islam makes a clear diferentiation between areas that have historically been ruled by Islam, such as much of Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East and the rest of the world)? I don't think that Finland has been spared because it has behaved better than other countries... I think it simply has had the good fortune not to have the demographic or historical connection to Islam that would make it a likely target.

The U.S. has become a special target because it has dared to openly oppose a Muslim regime (even though it was in support of another Muslim regime).

Posted by: David | Sep 8, 2004 8:43:14 AM

Sarah... looking for lapses in intel, as well as flaws in security are natural (not to mention sensible)actions in the wake of a terrorist attack. But the outcry over these lapses was so much louder than any denounciation of the terroists themselves that it prompted me to write what I did.

People lose sight of the whole cause & effect thing. Bad intel didn't cause the attack. Poor security didn't cause the attack. Even the bungled rescue attempt didn't cause the attck. The terrorists caused the attack.

People need to make a clear distinction between failing to prevent, and actually causing an event to occur. They are worlds apart.

Posted by: David | Sep 8, 2004 8:51:17 AM

Yes, David, that's half the answer I was looking for, thank you. Though...to each mizvah, there are at least two interpretations, as we know. Whose interpretation/teaching of 'lifnei iver' are you favouring?

In any way - I don't think any of the commenters saw to make you regret what you've written? Why the justification? The discussion is quite interesting [as always here, I cannot help saying!].

Posted by: mademoiselle a. | Sep 8, 2004 1:15:27 PM

David - thanks for being open to discussion.

In response to your questions:

1. No, driving into the area is not what I meant by taunting - though it may be being a little foolish.
Certainly the guy who steals your car has to held responsible for his actions. But that's not to say that society doesn't bear some responsibilty for the conditions that allow/cause crime to be rampant in that area, or for doing something to address those conditions. Clearly, locking up your particular thief is not going to address the underlying causes of the crime problem, nor prevent the next saab from being stolen.

2. I think as far as Finland goes, it's not sticking its nose in where it doesn't belong, whereas the US (with support of Australia and others) is perceived to be doing just that, and rightly so in many cases. They seem to have a tendency to say 'you should run your country the way we think it should be done, and if you don't we'll make you do it (one way or another).' A good example of that is the GWB administration tying humanitarian aid to guarantees that abortions will not be available and the promoton of abstinence (vs condoms) as pregnancy and AIDS protection... I think it is this sort of attitude that makes it such an obvious target: the attitude that says "We have money and power and you don't, so you have to do what we say."

Also as regards Finland's (or any other country's) history with Islam, I would like to add that it's not only Islam which has wrought "an ugly swath of destruction...throughout it's history". Immediate examples that come to mind are Nazi Germany and the IRA. John Quiggin has a much better post on this (with another interesting discussion in the comments) than I can give you.

Posted by: Kay | Sep 8, 2004 2:59:31 PM

Kay... I am always open to informed exchanges of viewpoints... I hope, as with voting, you will participate early and often in the discussions here at treppenwitz. :-)

So where are we... Ah yes... that car thief and what actually caused him to steal. Not my problem...I just lost a car. I'm right and he's wrong. I am all for social action and creating opportunities for the poor... but you make an odd leap from being poor to being a criminal that I can't agree with.

Also, when it comes to America (or any country) imposing its will abroad... that is called projecting power, and it has always been done, during times of peace and war. For example, if the U.S. hadn't projected its power into your part of the world for a little get-together called 'The battle of the Coral Sea'... you would be blogging in Japanese (I enjoyed crawling through your blog, by the way).

Linking foreign aid to policy is another thing that has always been done (by every country that gives foreign aid). It may seem a bit parental... but the bottom line is that the US gives a ton of foreign aid to countries that openly burn the American flag in the streets... something that baffles me (both the continued giving and the continued hatred). If a country doesn't like US policy, they are under no obligation to accept monitary help from them.

Lastly, Using the Nazis is a poor example because in a historical sense, they were less than a blink of an eye. The damage they did was out of all proportion to their short stay on history's stage (which is the only reason they will be remembered). While Islam, which has always openly proclaimed its intention to use the sword to dominate all 'infidel' nations, has a thousand glorious years of terror to show for its tenure.

Posted by: David | Sep 8, 2004 3:19:17 PM

Mademoiselle a...no justification going on here... just a nice friendly discussion. One (of the many) reasons I sometimes post political stuff is to bring out commentoers and ideas different than my own. One can't grow in a vacuum.

Kay isn't calling me names or anything... in fact she is obviously a very bright woman (she has a really nice blog, too). She admits to being a lefty, so we are obviously coming at this issue from different places (although I am not, strictly speaking, a righty).

Posted by: David | Sep 8, 2004 3:39:24 PM

A day or so late to this discussion, but...

It seems to me that Kay and David are talking past one another. Returning to the car analogy, it is perfectly reasonable to suggest that driving into a bad neighborhood was foolish and *to some extent* contributed to your loss. But it is not a good analogy to the terror-as-reaction-to-policy claim. In the car case, the error is sort of one of giving an *opportunity* to thieves. It is certainly true in the case somebody going on vacation for two weeks and leaving the door open.

But that is not what Kay (and many others) claim as a root of terrorism. You would have to argue that we should not have built airports or buildings or schools to claim that doing so provides a temptation to terrorists, which is of course ludicrous.

A better analogy might be likening alleged misguided policies to increasing police patrols in bad neighborhoods or firing people for poor work - and then saying that we shouldn't have done them. You can certainly point to cases of people who have gone on murderous rampages after being fired. The problem with this more accurate analogy for Kay's position is that it is really hard to argue that a shooting victim should look at his own actions in firing somebody, or that a theft victim should blame his police for increasing patrols in bad neighborhoods.

Posted by: Russell Gold | Sep 9, 2004 6:20:36 PM

What a fascinating string of dialog here. I have to say, I'm weighing in a bit more with Kay's corner, but I also see David's perspective.

The only thing I would like to add is that we all tend to lump "terrorists" into the same barrel. The alleged "purpose" that the various "terrorists" have can vary widely. As can our definitions of terrorists. If we define terrorism as an unprovoked attack on innocent people, there are folks in Iraq who might call American soldiers terrorists. (I wouldn't.)

There are bored, rich, Arab youths who have no "calling" in life and who might be roused to a life of religious zealotry by an inspired cleric, and who may end up killing infidels for Allah.

Then there is the little kid in Ireland who watches his parents get killed by a group from some other religion. He grows up hating people in that religion, and later kills because of it.

In both cases, the killing is 100% wrong. However, in the second case, one group cannot oppress another without expecting to raise up a generation of people who dislike or hate them--and might even kill them.

There is never an excuse for unprovoked violence, but we cannot assume that when we (I'm speaking from the U.S. point of view) commit acts of violence (even if provoked), that we won't raise up a people who will not turn the other cheek, and will in fact seek an eye for an eye. To assume anything else would be foolish.

Posted by: Jim | Sep 9, 2004 9:27:04 PM

"There is never an excuse for unprovoked violence, but we cannot assume that when we (I'm speaking from the U.S. point of view) commit acts of violence (even if provoked), that we won't raise up a people who will not turn the other cheek, and will in fact seek an eye for an eye. To assume anything else would be foolish."

How exactly is deliberate targeting of civilians "an eye for an eye"? How many other populations can you name that have ever applauded and rationalization the murder of children?

Attacks on troops in Iraq are clearly not terrorism - they are guerilla warfare. I am not aware of anybody calling them immoral. But we are talking about things like the 9/11 bombing, the Beslan massacre, the Delphinium bombing, the Hatuel murders, and so on.

Posted by: Russell Gold | Sep 9, 2004 11:39:24 PM

Thank you Russell... Jim and I have a long friendly history (not to mention a mutual admiration society), I was not looking forward to 'spanking' him over this one... glad you did it for me. :-)

Jim buddy... we're gonna have to agree to disagree on this issue. We seem to be of two very different minds when it comes to the issue of reasonable cause and effect.

Posted by: David | Sep 9, 2004 11:52:57 PM

I think (and David I am planning to come back to answer your other questions) that the response to Russell's response to Jim is that it may not be 'reasonable' it may not be exactly an eye an eye - no one is suggesting that it is OK - but, that's not to say that it is not predictable.

Actually, maybe that's not quite the right response because that plays into Russell's hand vis-a-vis the firing of a poor (but presumably psycho) worker causing him/her to shoot the ex-boss. Which I don't think is an accurate analogy for US foreign policy... but my two year old is calling and calling, so I'll have to come back to this later.

Posted by: Kay | Sep 10, 2004 2:18:50 AM

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