Friday, March 16, 2012

Refuge from War

I am thinking about cities of refuge.

As I read about the US soldier accused of killing 16 Afghan civilians in an apparent murderous rage, I think, as I am inclined to do, of the Torah and the ancient near eastern culture from which it came.  I think in particular of the Torah's cities of refuge where someone who committed manslaughter could seek asylum, thus escaping the vengeance of family and friends.

The US soldier is now in a prison in Kansas.  He was taken out of Afghanistan so that he might be given a fair trial here in the US.

The Torah's laws are of course about manslaughter and not homicide, and certainly not the massacre of sixteen men, women and children.  Still what is the intention and lesson of these laws beyond that of safeguarding a person from extrajudicial punishment?  They come to teach that life is most prized.  Human life is most sacred.  A person cannot be killed in order to assuage emotions and in particular vengeance.  If the crime was an accident then his (or her) life continues to be cherished.

Democracies with their notions of individual rights come to reinforce this.  Thus even an accused mass murderer is accorded rights.  And he is hurried to a city where he might receive a fair trial.

I wonder why there have been so few, if any, protests against these murders?  Why was there far more protests against the burning of a few Korans?  Can democracy truly flourish where the values of honor and reverence are most cherished?  Can we sow the seeds of democratic revolution where human life is less holy than holy books?  Stand up and scream for justice with similar passion.  I love my books as well.  I love people even more.  That is the lesson of the cities of refuge.  Honor and vengeance are secondary to justice and life.

I wonder as well whether this act is one more piece of evidence that it becomes increasingly difficult to sustain war for many years.  Over time war corrodes the soul.  The acts that young men are forced to do eat away not only at their own souls, but the country's as well.  We learned this in Vietnam.  Israel learned this in Lebanon.

This does not make war in general wrong.  Sometimes we are left with no other choice.  But democracies cannot sustain such things for very long.  We hold human life in far too high esteem.  Some might say this will prove to be our undoing.  I say it is our greatest asset.  It is our most cherished prize.

It is what the lack of protests over these senseless deaths and the many protests over a few books painfully remind us.  It is what the Torah's cities of refuge come to teach us.

Addendum:
Be sure to read this article from The New York Times regarding this issue.  The following sums up the disconnect between our culture and theirs.
"'How can you compare the dishonoring of the Holy Koran with the martyrdom of innocent civilians?' said an incredulous Mullah Khaliq Dad, a member of the council of religious leaders who investigated the Koran burnings. 'The whole goal of our life is religion.'”

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