By Rav Reuven Spolter, Tzohar
After a terrorist has been neutralized and no longer presents a danger to the public, may a civilian kill the terrorist? This has been the subject of great debate both in the Israeli press as well as in Israel rabbinic email listserves. The major positions:
Rav David Stav, Head of Tzohar, issued a public call for citizens to refrain from taking the law into their own hands once a terrorist has been subdued. Basing his position on moral grounds Rav Stav writes, “These days, when the boiling blood is mixed with civilian willingness and resourcefulness, it’s important to maintain our moral superiority: To avoid harming a person who is not involved in murderous activity, and to avoid harming those who have already been neutralized and no longer pose a danger. It’s not because they are innocent. They deserve to die, but that is not our way. Harming a terrorist who has been neutralized causes double damage: The collateral damage is when these images are distributed, and the main damage is harming our moral norms. We will not stoop down to our enemies’ despicable behavior, and we will not contaminate ourselves with a moral breakdown.”
Rav Shmuel Eliyahu vociferously disagrees: Rav Eliyahu offered two sources for his position: He noted that Moshe Rabbeinu when he sees the Egyptian striking the Jewish slave, doesn’t care about who’s watching him; he takes action and kills the Egyptian. Rav Eliyahu also notes the fact that in the Torah there’s a concept of a גואל הדם who takes vengeance upon a murderer. “We don’t need to take any precautions. We need this [terrorist] not to emerge alive for any reason in the world.”
HaRav Yaakov Ariel seems to agree with Rav Stav, writing that, “When the danger has subsided and the terrorist is neutralized or injured, one must act with wisdom and careful consideration and not out of spontaneous emotions.”
You can also find a recent article by Rabbi Yair Hoffman on this topic.
I would add an additional point related to Parshat Noach. The universal prohibition against murder appears in this week’s Parshah. Moreover, the Torah commands us to execute the murderer: שופך דם האדם, באדם דמו יישפך: כי בצלם אלוקים, עשה את-האדם – “He who spills blood, his blood shall be spilled by man, for in the image of God did He make man.” (Bereishit 9:6)
In this verse, the Torah commands us to take the life of the murderer. Yet, Rashi notes that this clearly refers to action taken only in the context of the Beit Din: when there are proper witnesses and warnings, the court has the obligation to execute the murderer. Why? Because we were created in God’s image.
We invoke our Tzelem Elokim not when we take out our wrath – even justifiably – on a vile terrorist who has just killed innocent civilians. We are not animals who act and react without reason and consideration. We believe that we must overcome our passions and refer the murderer to the Beit Din which is then tasked with meting out justice. We must refrain from acts of vengeance precisely because we believe and promote this notion of Tzelem Elokim. Precisely when our enemies deny this concept and justify the wanton murder of men, women and children, our answer must be to uphold this divine concept and insist that we hold ourselves and the world to this higher moral standard.
I pray, together with you, that the Shomer Yisrael provides protection, strength and safety to Am Yisrael in Eretz Yisrael. May He give us the fortitude to overcome this terrible wave of terror, and continue to build the eternal homeland of the Jewish Nation.