When Right Becomes Wrong

July 20 2020 - Tammuz 28 5780

In a somewhat drastic deviation from the content I typically consider in HashemIsBeautiful, I will be using a movie as the springboard for an analysis of morality.

Notice: This movie portrays graphically violent scenes and is not intended for all audiences.

That movie is called Law Abiding Citizen and is about a father (Clyde Shelton, played by Gerald Butler) whose wife and daughter are murdered during a break-in into their home. The actual murder is carried out by the low-life cocaine-addicted Darby (Christian Stolte), while his slightly more virtuous assailant (Rupert Ames, played by Josh Stewart) robs the house and pleads with Darby to “stick to the original plunderers plan.”

When Darby gets off on a legal technicality and pins the murder on his unfortunate partner in crime (who is executed in his stead), the now widowed Clyde loses faith in the legal system and takes actions into his own hands. Being the engineering mastermind that he is, Clyde begins to unleash a coordinated program of terror beginning with the capture, gruesome torture, and killing of Darby. He gradually broadens his ring of blood-letting vengeance to all people directly involved with his case in any way; the judge, the prosecution, the defense, and even wet-behind-the-ears temps working on their first real job, seeking to “topple the corrupt temple” down on its worshipers in true Samsonite fashion.

While we empathize with the unspeakable misery experienced by the abandoned and forgotten Clyde, it seems that the lesson in this movie is that removing all boundaries (can, and perhaps inevitably) turns an otherwise justified cause into something indistinguishable from the evil it sought to destroy in the first place. In other words, everyone roots for Clyde at the beginning, but observes him almost unperceivably and gradually turning into an indefensible murderer responsible for more deaths and destroyed families than Darby.

Further, his transformation cannot be locked down to any specific action or point in time. Instead, it occurs somewhere in the recesses of his mind when he begins confusing the destruction of the corrupt system with the destruction of the human beings required to uphold that system. While it may be justifiable to destroy a system, it cannot be justifiable to kill the human beings that operate it.

The only morally permissible exception I can think of is killing people directly related to operating the specific part of a system responsible for murder. For example, Jewish partisans in WWII bombing "infrastructure critical to the Nazi war effort such as supply trains," even if it cannot be done without killing the train operator, who may have never killed a Jew in his life. In such a case the failure to prevent such wholesale murder may as well be a moral failure. The train operator may very well be the "unfortunate collateral," but such a designation has to be very tightly defined to avoid the murder of innocents, which may defeat the purpose of acting in the first place.

The principle that an otherwise justifiable cause can be corrupted and actually completely destroyed by overstepping boundaries can be applied to any number of situations. Given events more directly relevant to my community, I cannot help but apply it to what I consider to be a misguided expression and aberration of Jewish values in the form of misplaced zeal. I am referring to the intensified focus of a very specific and localized sector of the Orthodox Jewish community to laws of modesty. It should be understood that I support such laws, deeply believe in them, and view them as imperatives on a practical and ideological level. It should also be understood as my view that zealously upholding such spiritually uplifting imperatives at the expense of sensible and compassionate behavior towards human beings, other religious Jews in this case, endangers the purpose for spiritual commitments to Judaism in the first place.

I apply this principle to other areas as well, some more extreme, such as the unwavering commitment to violence against civilians by terrorist groups such as Hamas in the name of adherence to the religion of Islam. The vantage point of my own experiences limits my ability to conceive of other apt illustrations of this principle, although I am sure that most people reading this will be able to think of many others.

At what point does a justified, noble, morally-driven endeavor lose its direction, thus becoming indistinguishable from the wrong it attempted to right in the first place, and is there a way to avoid it?

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