Two of my favorite TV shows, both on Showtime, reveal a lot about Syria and Iraq. Yet only one involves the Middle East. It’s all about the rodef, the Hebrew word for pursuer—one who seeks to murder or otherwise harm an innocent person. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 73a) states that in self-defense, we may kill the rodef first. But the concept of the rodef and responses to it defy easy definition.
Take Homeland. The rodef lies at the heart of the series, including season four, which began last Sunday. The relentless Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) is in Kabul managing the drone rocketing of Islamists on a long hit list. The CIA considers these men rodefs—pursuers seeking to launch terrorist operations.
The initial episodes pose troubling questions. How are we to view collateral damage—a euphemism for killing and wounding civilians—when targeting rodefs? (I’m not giving anything away when I write that a drone attack approved by Carrie causes extensive collateral damage.) Must attacks against rodefs guarantee zero collateral damage? Should the target be spared regardless of potential loss of life resulting from his future activities?
Ray Donovan, which concluded two weeks ago, poses another question: Can the concept of rodef be exploited? Ezra Goodman (Elliot Gould), a doddering but powerful and immoral Hollywood lawyer, frequently draws on Jewish law to justify his instructions to Ray (Liev Schreiber), his hired fixer with blood on his hands. Ezra excuses a murder by citing the rodef. But it’s clear that the victim was not pursuing innocent blood but rather the truth about criminal activities in which Ezra and Ray were involved.
How does Ray Donovan relate to the Middle East? Islamists see rodefs everywhere. The West, they say, is out to get us. The West’s colonial past is undeniable. But so too are the brutal Muslim dictatorships in Iraq and Syria that spawned so much chaos. (For the record: I opposed invading Iraq; the Bush administration’s mishandling of the post-war period demonstrates why.) It’s particularly sad—and frightening—to see so many young Western Muslims, including women, in Syria. They’re true believers fighting not only the Assad regime but also anyone who doesn’t follow the intolerant forms of Sunni Islam they’ve only recently adopted.
Last Wednesday, CBS-TV News’s Clarissa Ward interviewed a young Somali-American man who condemns America for bombing innocent Muslims. America is the terrorist, he says while praising Osama bin Laden. He makes no concession that the 190,000 deaths in Syria alone involve mostly Muslims killed by Muslims. Neither does he mention Islamists killing Christians and Yazidis simply because they are Christians and Yazidis.
A Thursday Reuters report on yahoo.com was particularly affecting. A 15-year-old French-Muslim girl went to Syria to take part in humanitarian efforts on behalf of Islamist forces. Seemingly disillusioned, she cannot return. Many young women from the West find themselves forced into marriages. All become virtual prisoners. Like the Eagles’ Hotel California, you can get in, but you can never get out.
Ray Donovan demonstrates that the term rodef and justifications for self-defense can be abused. Homeland raises the challenge that legitimate defense against the rodef may be fraught with moral danger. We’d all like to pursue simple answers. They likely will outrun us.
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