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Jewish Journal

Vengeance: It’s Part of Justice

by Joshua Micah Marshall

November 8, 2001 | 7:00 pm

Last month, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon touched off a brief war of words with the United States when he warned the West -- and particularly America -- not to forget the lessons of Munich 1939, when Europe's democracies appeased Hitler by sacrificing Czechoslovakia. But there's more than one "Munich" etched on the pages of history. And the one that occurred 33 years later may provide more apt guidance for our struggle against terrorism today.

During the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich, terrorists from the PLO's Black September faction swooped down on the Olympic Village, and took 11 Israeli athletes hostage. Through a mixture of the terrorists barbarism and the fecklessness of the Germans' armed response, the attack led eventually to the deaths of all 11 captives and five of the terrorists.

The particulars of those tragic days needn't concern us here; but the Israeli response should.

Soon after the attacks, Israel unleashed a massive military response, primarily on targets in Lebanon and Syria. But then-Prime Minister Golda Meir decided that this was not enough. The result was Operation "Wrath of God."

Israeli intelligence compiled a list of individuals who had participated in, planned or knowingly assisted the plot. A super-secret team of Israeli intelligence operatives was then tasked with hunting them down and killing them.

No captures, no extraditions, no trials.

Each was to be hunted down and killed.

And over the course of the decade, with one exception, each was. The first of these reprisals came soon after the Munich hostage-taking; but they went on for years. The final assassination took place in 1979 in Beirut, when agents finally caught up with Ali Hassan Salameh, one of the masterminds of the Munich attack.

Today America's first order of business is doing everything in our power to ensure that events like those of Sept. 11 never happen again. That means disrupting terrorist networks, shutting off their flows of money, and attacking states that aid and abet them. That is just what we are doing today, in the skies over Afghanistan and elsewhere. But this satisfies only the requirements of self-defense, not justice or vengeance. And our agenda must go further.

If the perpetrators of the Sept. 11 attacks will turn themselves in, or if they can be readily extradited, so be it. But if not, like the Israeli government after Munich, the American government should commit itself -- secretly perhaps, but as a matter of national policy nonetheless -- to hunt them down and repay them in kind.

In this case, self-defense and justice will often be indistinguishable. Hunting down Osama bin Laden is justified on the grounds of self-defense as well as justice. But as a matter of principle, at least, we should delineate the two goals.

We need to be clear that those who are responsible for this outrage ought to be hunted down -- not simply as a matter of self-defense, but as a matter of justice and right. Our leaders constantly say -- understandably, perhaps -- that what we want is justice, not vengeance. But vengeance is an element of justice. And a critical one at that. Mercy is a virtue. But vengeance is not necessarily a vice. It becomes one only when it is acted upon indiscriminately.

Let's take our time to discover who was involved, be careful to put internal checks in place, and then set about the task deliberately. It might take years -- or even decades -- to accomplish. But everyone involved in Sept. 11, even years from now, must know that it's only a matter of time. It is vengeance; and it's the right thing to do.

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