A woman was stabbed to death half a mile from my home last Monday. Her adult son apparently killed her and wounded his father. Police were called. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, the alleged killer held up a knife in each hand and approached them. One officer fired a non-lethal beanbag. The man kept coming. Another officer fired his weapon and killed the man.

Were the police justified? Did they follow established protocols? Could they have done more to avoid taking a life? On the other hand, how much risk must police take during a potentially violent confrontation? I ask these questions because several deaths took place during the last week. A U.S. drone killed Anwar al-Awlaki, an American-born Al Qaeda member operating in Yemen along with Samir Khan, another American, who edited a jihadi Internet magazine. The question arose: Did American forces have the right to kill American citizens?

A day later, a Mendocino County SWAT team shot and killed Aaron Bassler, a double-murder suspect they had pursued for five weeks. Bassler was known to be armed and dangerous. According to CNN, he raised a loaded weapon, the safety off, and aimed it at police but did not fire. Sherrif Tom Allman said no shoot-to-kill order was in effect. Did the police have a right to fire first in such a situation?

Yesterday, Santa Clara County deputies in Cupertino, California killed Shareef Allman (no relation to Tom Allman), wanted for killing three co-workers and wounding seven, including a woman whose car he attempted to steal. Shareef Allman was armed. Should police have taken him alive? Could they have done so?

These deaths force us to consider the rights of anyone accused of waging war against the nation or engaged in violent crime. But they should also remind us of the dangers faced by military and law enforcement personnel. We depend on them to protect us. We must display concern regarding their protection while acting in the line of duty.

Early on during the war in Iraq, Humvees were under-armored and thus unable to protect our men and women from improvised explosive devices (IEDs). We sent them into harm’s way anyway. At home, police have been killed during routine traffic stops as well as during arrests. We expect them to their jobs nonetheless.

In the case of Anwar al-Awlaki, CIA or special operations forces could not simply knock on his door somewhere in Yemen—if they knew where he lived—and announce, “Mr. Awlaki, we have a warrant for your arrest.” Yemen, like Iraq and Afghanistan, can be very hostile territory. There, we are foreigner. So while drone attacks take lives, they also save lives—our own. At home, police who confront armed and dangerous suspects must exercise great discipline. We cannot, however, ask them to take suicidal risks when, “Mr. Bassler, please come with me, sir,” may be met with a hail of bullets.

The Torah commands, “Lo tirtzach” (Exod. 20:13). The proper translation is not, “Don’t kill.” It’s, “Don’t murder.” The line can be thin, a misstep fatal. As we approach Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, may we work towards a world in which the terrible questions above need no longer be asked.

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1 Comment

  1. Carolyn Power on October 7, 2011 at 11:07 pm

    Sometimes the rules of engagement inexplicably change putting our police and soldiers in harm’s way. I do wish that the mentally ill would be treated with more consideration, however.

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