Gilad Shalit and "The Cruel Calculus of Death"

The moral dilemma accompanying Gilad Shalit's potential release from Hamas captivity has no easy solution. The cruel reality boils down to this: what is the price of a single human life? Is it worth the return of one thousand captives who may go on to destroy more lives?

For some pious Jews, the answer can be found in the mitzvah of pidyon shvuyim, the mandated good deed of redeeming captives. I think one can begin to find the answer in a broader edict. The Mishna teaches, “Whoever destroys one life is considered by the Torah as if he destroyed an entire world, and whoever saves one life is considered by the Torah as if he saved an entire world.” This is a principle taken up by Christianity as well, embodied in some pious Christians' opposition to abortion and the death penalty. But the concept of the infinite value of human life goes beyond the ethics of when it is appropriate to take a life. It also touches the ethics of the costs of saving a life.

The lives that might be taken by the terrorists who will be freed are also of infinite value. But their lives might still be protected; and in the meantime, there is another life that can be saved. The moral dilemma of Gilad's release is still difficult, but a second dilemma has also been raised: the moral dilemma of how we react to it.

There were two waves of reaction on Twitter when the news broke about Gilad's potential release. The first wave was bittersweet relief. The second wave, a few hours later, was simply bitter.

The current furor on Twitter over the potential guilt Gilad would feel, and the outrage about the deeds of the terrorists being released, saddens me, because it adds an unnecessary layer of shame onto a man who has already suffered more than enough. In some of the anguish people are expressing about the release of Hamas terrorists, it might be easy to forget that it is those terrorists who committed the wrongs that we mourn: not Gilad, not the Israelis who negotiated his return. You cannot commute their guilt onto the innocent parties involved. That also violates the principle that Judaism founded, and Christianity adopted, and that both contributed to modern law: that justice does not permit communal guilt.

The terms of Gilad's release, though painful to many Israelis, are not totally unwarranted; nor do I think he ought to feel externally-imposed moral guilt about them. The people the Palestinian terrorists have killed are dead; Gilad is (supposedly) alive. I don't think it's justifiable to begrudge an attempt to save a living person because it involves a perceived insult to the dead; but I could be wrong.

This is sadly, as Alan Dershowitz has written, "why terrorism works" -- because we (the supporters of Western, Judeo-Christian ethics) value life, and terrorists don't. But that is also what sets us apart from the terrorists. It puts a hobble on efforts to deter and disincentivize terror; but to take the hobble off would be no freedom.