The murder of sixteen Afghan civilians allegedly by Staff Sergeant Robert Bales has set many Americans to soul searching. The killings were in themselves terrible. They also have caused serious deterioration in the tenuous U.S.-Afghan relationship. But even more is involved concerning something each of us must fear about ourselves.
Family and friends portray Bales—now in confinement at Fort Leavenworth—as an upstanding family man and neighbor. If he could do such a horrible thing, what does that say about us? Can any of us withstand life’s most terrible pressures? Are we willing to put others into life-threatening situations and expect them to emerge unscathed?
A ten-year veteran, Bales was deployed three times to Iraq and then to Afghanistan. The White House and the Pentagon will have to give serious thought to how we engage in extended wars given the volunteer makeup of our armed forces. Not that a draft would easily solve this problem. In Vietnam and Korea, for example, most American forces served a single tour. But that’s all it took to spur occasional atrocities like the 1968 My Lai massacre in Vietnam and inflict Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) on a significant number of returning troops.
Yes, the media is digging into Bales’ background and finding negatives. But Robert Bales is neither less nor more human than anyone else. David Brooks, in his New York Times column of March 20, wrote that, “…even people who contain reservoirs of compassion and neighborliness also possess a latent potential to commit murder.” Brooks—as I’m sure he knows—relates nothing new.
The Sages of the Talmud tell us that human beings all contain the yetzer tov, the good impulse, and the yetzer hara, the bad impulse. This reflects their interpretation of Eve (she did go first) and Adam (he never protested) eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Bad against God’s clear instructions. Christians interpret this defiant act as giving rise to original sin—humans are sinful by nature. The Sages—and this remains Judaism’s take on the issue—view every individual as capable of bad rather than sinful. We require no forgiveness for being born human but rather for any specific bad acts we perform.
The presence of the yetzer hara implies the necessity of making choices. To think we will naturally do good is delusional. Doing what is right takes work because each of us is capable of doing bad. During periods of stress, we risk losing our thin veneer of civility and self-restraint. Horrible acts may follow. Bales’ accumulated military experiences and challenges at home may well have exposed his yetzer hara. Why other military personnel with similar experiences refrain from committed murder remains an intriguing question.
Such thoughts bring me to Deuteronomy 30:19. Moses warns Israel that through God, “I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse.” He counsels, “U’vcharta b’chaim—Choose life.” Whether Jew, Christian or Muslim—Hindu, Sikh or Buddhist—agnostic or atheist—we confront pressures and temptations every day. May we choose life indeed.
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