The Shot (Not) Heard Round the World

In Israel they tell a joke about an American who moves there and sits down for his first eye test.

“Can you read the letters in the bottom line?”


“How about the middle line?”


“Top line?”


“Oy, that means you’re legally blind.”

“No, it just means I can’t read Hebrew.”

Still, there is a thing or two that Israel needs to import from here, despite their proficiency in many areas, particularly military and technological. One thing we know how to do here is shoot to kill. When you hear of a police shooting to stop a dangerous criminal in the act, the fellow usually ends up taking thirty bullets from four different officers.

And rightly so. This is not the result of trigger-happy hotheads channeling their hostility into police work. For the most part, law enforcement in this country is noted for its restraint, and an innocent person is less likely to be blown away by overzealous cops here than in most other parts of the world. But there is an understanding that once a suspect has crossed the line into active aggression, with a gun or a bomb or a motor vehicle aimed at pedestrians, he needs to be squashed by overwhelming force.

This issue has exploded into controversy in Israel over a recent incident when apparently too little force was used and that hesitation caused other innocent deaths. There had been a tendency in recent years for police to shoot at terrorists somewhat hesitantly, because of the very strict vetting of the report to be filed afterwards. Officers can get in serious trouble if they are judged to have used excessive force. The government is overly sensitive in this area, due to the many human-rights watchdog agencies breathing down their necks.

This climate of diffident law enforcement has just caused a loss of life, making it the object of national scrutiny. In the bulldozer attack by a construction worker turned terrorist two weeks ago, the perpetrator had managed to kill two people by running over their cars with his gargantuan machine. At that point he was shot from the ground upwards by a policewoman. One shot. The perpetrator apparently grunted and slumped over the wheel.

What happens next is captured on video, so early police denials have since been sheepishly retracted. The policewoman put her gun away and began to climb up toward the motionless driver. Suddenly the man sats up and hit the accelerator hard; the officer fell back startled. The bulldozer headed at a sitting duck, a compact car stuck at the head of a line of trapped traffic. He rammed the car, killing the driver, Batsheva Unterman, 35. At this point, an off-duty soldier jumped into the cab, confronting the driver empty-handed. The security guard of a nearby building joins the fray, his gun holstered at his hip. The soldier grabs the gun from the guard’s holster and puts a few shots into the murderous driver, finally finishing him off.

All of this excessively pacific intervention – the one-shot cop and the no-shot guard – has the average Israeli up in, yes, arms. This was dramatized by the fact that Mrs. Unterman’s baby, sitting in a car seat, was miraculously unscathed. Also, the deceased bore a famous name: her husband’s grandfather was Rabbi I. Y. Unterman (1886-1976), who was the rabbi of Liverpool, England, for two decades, and served as Chief Rabbi of Israel from 1964-1973.

This is one of the most brutal aspects of functioning within our reality. There exist certain situations in which compassion demands that you pull the trigger. And pull it again and again. If you cannot muster the will to finish that man off, some sweet mother sitting with her baby in her car may pay for your hesitation with their lives. That off-duty soldier in Israel taught the country, and the world, an important lesson. In the Talmudic phrase: “He who has mercy upon the ruthless is really being ruthless to the merciful.”

We need to remember this in reference to our soldiers as well. Every now and then the media embarrasses our brass into court-martialing a soldier for excessive force in just such a situation. Our people need to know that they have free rein in bringing down the bad guy before he spills more innocent blood. If we do not remember this at all times we are in trouble: you don’t have to know Hebrew to read the writing on the wall.