Forward Thinking

How Do We Avenge Steven Sotloff's Death?

By Jay Michaelson

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Shiite Muslim fighters take part in a last combat training before joining the government forces to fight Islamic State jihadists / Getty Images

And so another beheading of another American journalist — this time “one of us,” as today’s Forward editorial has reminded us. “One of us” meaning an American Jew, and one whose family is active in their South Florida community, and one who took Israeli citizenship.

But also one of us, a journalist — as my friend Ilene Prusher, one of Steven Sotloff’s former editors, shared in Haaretz today.

Sotloff’s execution is a triple crime. Of course, it is first and foremost a crime against Sotloff himself, brutally executed in what experts have said is likely a gruesome and excruciating way to die.

Second, it is an act of war against the United States, meant either to scare us or, perhaps, goad us into an all-out war in Iraq and Syria. “I’m back, Obama,” the executioner announces.

Third, it is a crime against everything we in the West hold dear: the safety of journalists and other non-combatants, the rules of war, and nothing less than civilization in general.

So, what now? Everyone, including the Forward, is demanding “a plan to deal with ISIS,” as if such a plan can be devised. But everyone knowledgeable about the situation (again, including the Forward editors) knows that this is a complex morass, partly of our own making, that cannot be cleanly addressed. Limited air strikes, of course — those have already prevented a genocide. Tactical support here and there. But what, more broadly, can be done?

Already, ISIS/ISIL/The Islamic State has changed the game in the Middle East. Just a few months ago, U.S. hawks were pushing the United States to bomb Syria, and before that, to bomb Iran. Now, Syria’s Alawite-minority regime and Iraq’s Iranian-Shiite-backed regime don’t look so bad after all. Now they are our allies in fighting ISIS’s Sunni extremism. Good thing we didn’t bomb them, I guess.

The same hawks are complaining that the Obama administration is making America look weak. Of course, the Bush administration, which ostensibly made America look strong, are the ones who tore apart Iraq without a plan for sewing it back together. Not that Saddam Hussein was a great humanitarian — but maybe we shouldn’t have bombed him either. Maybe bombing everyone isn’t the smartest policy.

It sure feels good, though. Watch even the censored videos of the Sotloff and Foley executions, and see what happens. Prediction: disgust, horror, and rage. In my case, mostly rage. I want to completely destroy ISIS and everyone who supports them. I want to blot them out off the face of the Earth. I want them dead.

The question is whether these instincts are the smartest, or most just, guidelines for actual policy.

To be sure, they are appealingly democratic. Who cares about Ph.D’s in international relations when we all can trust our guts? Who cares about Sunni/Shia dynamics when every red-blooded American wants to blast these guys to hell?

But in fact, those Ph.D’s represent a lot of careful, methodical thinking that is a lot more likely to succeed than ignorance and rage. Indeed, I will leave the military details to the experts. What I want to do instead is flash back 2,500 years for a moment.

Unlike the scriptures of other traditions — Christianity and Buddhism come to mind — Jewish texts do not condemn violence. Much to the chagrin of contemporary peaceniks, the Hebrew Bible, especially the books of Numbers, Joshua, Samuel, and Kings, are filled with accounts of just wars led by strong generals who sacrifice the lives of their own troops and ruthlessly take those of their adversaries. Like it or not, in this respect, the Torah is more like the Koran than either is like the Gospels.

Even more so. On more than one occasion, God expresses displeasure at warfare being incompletely prosecuted. Perhaps most famously, King Saul — who had already defeated in battle the Philistines, Moabites, Ammonites, and Edomites — annihilates all of the Amalekites (soldiers and civilians) but spares their king Agag and a few choice animals. The response? Samuel the prophet rebukes him for his weakness, and says he will lose his kingdom as a result. Which he does.

So, to whatever extent its values are of interest today, it is clear that the Bible is not a book of pacifism.

At the same time, it is not a text of rash violence either. Righteous rage yes — but rage channeled into long-term, relentless determination. The Bible condemns rash judgments — think of the war hero Yiftach (Jephtah) sacrificing his own daughter to fulfill a rash vow — and rash, un-tactical actions.

Temper tantrums such as those thrown on Fox News are childish. Likewise the notion of a “Clash of Civilizations” between “Judeo-Christians” and Muslims — as if all, or even most, Muslims support a brutal gang, made up largely of foreigners, which beheads a hundred fellow Muslims for every one American.

We must practice a cold, calculating rage. We will use force where possible, but persuasion, politics, and pragmatism elsewhere. Humanitarian aid, for example, is not mere charity; it is a calculated investment that less desperate people are less likely to support extremism. It’s also smart to muzzle our own extremists (rather than empower them with, say, additional settlements in the West Bank) so that they do not, in their rage, undermine the calculations of more intelligent, tactical thinking.

This is what adulthood looks like. It’s less exciting than the rant of a pundit, less fulfilling than a violent rampage. But real justice is not about ratings, catharsis, or tough talk at the bar. It is about the relentless, methodical destruction of evil. That requires a certain sublimation of our human desires for revenge. But not an abandonment of them.


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