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August 27, 2009

Misplaced Compassion

http://www.jewishjournal.com/blog/item/misplaced_compassion_39090827/

This past week I spoke and participated in a rally in vicinity of the UN.  The purpose of the rally was to protest the recent decision by Scottish justice officials to release the terrorist responsible for the bombing of PanAm Flight 103 in 1988 over Lockerbie, Abdel Baset al-Megrahi.  The bombing killed all 259 passengers on board and 11 residents of Lockerbie.  The rally was emotional and moving; a number of the victim’s relatives joined us in raising a powerful and tender voice in condemnation of this decision.

This decision by Scottish official to release al-Megrahi is troubling on a number of levels.  In today’s post, however, I wanted to explore briefly the official predicate for al-Megrahi’s release and to cite a Jewish source that perhaps places the rally I attended in proper context.  Al-Megrahi was reportedly released on compassionate grounds: he is suffering from late-term cancer is expected to live only a few more months.  This reasoning – showing compassion on a hardened and unrepentant killer – calls to mind a comment made by Rashi in last week’s parsha, parshat Shoftim.  The Torah, in teaching some of the laws relating to warfare, begins this section with the introductory statement, “When you go out to battle against your enemies ….”  (Devarim 20:1). The words “your enemies” are superfluous.  When one declares and goes out to war, it is by definition a war against one’s enemies.  Rashi, remarking on this apparent superfluity, derives the following teaching from the words “your enemies.” Rashi states, “they shall be in your eyes like enemies; do not show compassion on them for they will not show mercy on you.”

This sentiment is a bit jarring to modern ears, and our tradition’s attitudes towards our enemies are certainly more complex than this.  But Rashi – who witnessed the first crusade in 1096 – is right in this essential point.  It hardly serves the goals of justice to show compassion on a true enemy of civil society.  The families of al-Magrahi’s victims are the ones deserving our compassion.  And when we gathered in protest, we also gathered to show compassion to Babette Hollister, whose daughter Katherine, would have celebrated her 41st birthday this week.  Compassion for Hope Asrelsky who is certain that her daughter Rachel, who was just 21 when she died, would have been in Washington today, advocating for a better more just world.  It is cruel to betray these families on a fleeting and groundless gesture of mercy.  Al-Megrahi and his Libyian enablers would certainly not have done the same.

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