Zero Dark Future

By Jewish Light Editorial

What’s the right balance between security and civil liberties as our dangerous world is continually threatened by rogue forces, often in complicity with nations that themselves denigrate human rights, support terror and ignore international law?

The issues associated with this question seem to be cropping up with increasing frequency, with another example in the news this week. As Israel apparently reached into Syria to destroy antiaircraft weapons presumably intended for the known terrorist group Hezbollah, and perhaps a chemical weapon facility to boot, will the world see such a mission as a justified, anticipatory act of self-defense, or an unwarranted intrusion into another nation’s turf?

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Hawks commonly point to the defensive necessity of such acts, which seem to fit well with the anticipatory thrust of the vague “Bush Doctrine” put forth under the previous presidential administration. The argument is that advance attacks are justified to prevent future threats to the homeland. Doves profess shock and alarm at the degradation of civil rights and the impact on innocents, and advocate for drawing narrower lines for the legitimacy of intervention. 

That so many are debating where lines ought be drawn is hardly surprising. Whenever a sociological or technology change is introduced into the human dynamic, the rules are often vague and fairly debatable for a long time before the civilized world determines the appropriate rules and ethics. Drone strikes, torture, secretive attacks on foreign soil, invasions of privacy, all are freely debated tactics in the evolving balance between freedom from attack and freedom from terror.

Israel’s case for its most recent incursion is a strong one as such cases go, given the historic circumstances. Despite hostile voices complaining about the strike (mostly from inherently anti-Israel realms such as Iran, Turkey and Syria itself), there’s no denying that Israel has been faced with weapons creep posing a fairly immediate threat from all directions – through Gaza tunnels, near the Lebanese border, and so on. When terrorist organizations and state actors who call for Israel’s destruction collaborate on conduct designed to render the nation’s borders and population insecure, it’s entirely possible that there is more risk to innocents from inaction than from action.

At somewhat less immediate points on the threat spectrum are actions such as drone or human strikes intended to decapitate terrorist cells or organizations by targeting their masterminds. These may not always be associated with a specific, tangible threat, but rather with the need to diminish terrorists’ capabilities, resources and structures. There is still a nexus in this instance with the protection of civilians, but since the connection may be more attenuated in either time or likelihood, the burden of proof on the attacker grows even higher. NBC this week reported on the Obama Administration’s policy paper justifying drone strikes on Americans who are senior operational leaders of Al Qaeda or an associated force, which will undoubtedly cause further discussion about the practice.

And then there’s the murky area where goals other than outright prevention – for instance, punishment or retribution for previous attacks – mix into the equation. So in “Zero Dark Thirty,” the Kathryn Bigelow film dealing with the decade-long hunt for Osama bin Laden, is the primary objective the retaliatory murder of a war criminal, or the slicing off of the terrorist beast’s head, or some of each? Does it matter? And does either goal justify unlimited forms of torture, or the incursion into Pakistan by United States forces without collaboration from the home state?

Bigelow does not make it easy for the viewer; along the way, we see multiple terror bombings and both military and indiscriminate civilian casualties. While some have chastised the director for justifying torture (by showing a nexus between waterboarding and tracking the key link to bin Laden), she’s not nearly that obvious – the conclusions are really left to the viewer, to determine where the fuzzy lines ought be drawn.

The public dialogue engendered by the film, and by the recent Israeli attack, is essential for us to refine our worldview of this ongoing battle. The difficulty in the debate is not nearly as much balancing right versus wrong, but resolving conflicts between two rights – safety and security on the one hand, and personal freedom and liberties on the other. These are each sets of values to be recognized and respected.

Terrorism is inherently wrong, of course, but to attack it, say the warriors, requires the use of tactics that may themselves burrow into other elements of our lives we hold dear – privacy, freedom of movement, freedom from intrusion, erosion of due process. Only by continuous discussion can we nudge both our society and the world toward a consistent ethical underpinning for these situations.