General Topics

Boston, Cameras, and Civil Liberties


America is a crazy land of contradictions, and yet if ever there was an argument in favor dysfunction, the USA is it.

Enough of its senators could not agree to require its citizens to be checked before being allowed to buy guns. Or put it another way, this is a democracy where the National Rifle Association can buy enough senators to carry out its wishes. And which normal healthy state could possibly object to limiting the size and arsenals of guns readily available to the ordinary man and woman in the street? No state except for the United States of America. And this regardless of how many mentally unstable mass murderers have already killed so many innocents, how many tragedies have occurred, or that the death from gun-inflicted wounds is so massively higher than anywhere else on earth. As they say, “You cannot be serious.”

OK, so the Right is crazy. What about the Left? A few weeks ago, two brothers set off bombs at the Boston Marathon that killed three and caused some of the most horrific injuries to innocent bystanders it has been my unfortunate lot to see on television (and outside Israel). They were apprehended before they could execute their planned campaign of violence only because security cameras caught them on video. In Boston, the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) had successfully blocked the city from placing cameras in the city center public places and had prevented others from being activated because, they argued, it was in breach of civil liberties. Fortunately, private stores had their cameras turned on and it was thanks to those of Lord & Taylor that the terrorists were identified and so quickly. Yet still the ACLU continues to campaign against cameras in public places. They too are either misguided or naïve ideologues. How can we deal with evil, amoral enemies with our hands tied behind our backs? Surely safety overrides libertarian considerations. Indeed according to Hobbes (whom the Founding Fathers admired), this is the very basis of society. We give up freedoms. We accept taxes and limitations precisely as the price for protection and safety. OK, so they don’t agree with Hobbes, but I do! Besides, if you are doing nothing illegal in a public place what have you got to fear? No one has suggested putting cameras in the homes and bedrooms of American citizens (without a court order).

The ACLU mentality is of the same breed as the refusal of so many sections of US society to accept that this kind of violence is indeed a product of Islam. What Islam was intended to be, or was once, is not what huge swathes of it are now. Similarly in Judaism, what was intended and how many practice it or don’t, is a far cry from its ideal past. Are we to pretend all is healthy and rosy in our garden and not admit what is distorted? Should we say that the religious anti-Zionists who demonstrate with our enemies are not really Jews? I might like to, but it won’t help. I thank the Lord they don’t explode bombs. But political correctness prevents dealing with issues and only prolongs the agony.

Western states are irrational and all but ungovernable. They encompass so many radically different ideologies, ethnic and religious groups, so many contrasting ways of life. Somehow they find ways, through trial and error, of coping. They are more popular places to live in those countries which are controlled and commanded, whether by religion or political ‘isms’ which stand in the way of progress and resolution and only delay transformation.

Yet I believe good governance requires a spiritual, ethical dimension. If I had to put my finger on why the USA has been relatively successful, it is precisely because its founding ethical utilitarianism was combined with a spiritual persuasion, even if it was antinomian and separated officially from state.

To return to civil liberties, nothing better illustrates the difference between a Jewish religious standpoint and the values of the ACLU. Once I believed it had a vital role to play, like the unions. But now, like the unions, they have betrayed their mandate, and they stand in the way of progress rather than for it. Its prevailing spirit is to enthrone individuality over all other else. And while I agree with the importance of individuality, it cannot be the overriding principle in a communitarian world.

Our religious culture assumes we do need checks and balances, a restraining principle. This is provided not just by our moral system, but also by the idea that we are always being watched. As the Mishna in Avot says, “Think of three things and you’ll never go wrong; an eye is looking, an ear is hearing and everything is being recorded.” Now they were not thinking of the FBI but they were thinking of God and of course the obvious difference between them is corruption.

In our tradition, having someone look over your shoulder is a good thing. In my Musar Yeshiva (Musar is the ethical religious movement introduced into Lithuanian yeshivot to raise the moral and spiritual level of yeshivah students, started by Rav Israel Salanter 1810-1883), we were all allocated a senior student to keep an eye on us during the day and to tell us in the evening what we had done that was inappropriate or whether there was anything, any characteristic, that could be bettered. We called that moral training. It is no bad thing to imagine that everything is being recorded.

As the Talmudic giant Rebbi Yossi once said, “All my life I have never said anything and then had to turn round to see if anyone was listening.” How many of us can say that! Indeed, how many regret half the comments and photos they allowed to go up on Facebook and now feel embarrassed or ashamed! It would be no bad thing to have a friendly heavenly voice telling us when to watch out. In our tradition we have security cameras. God is watching. We live with it! But for others the mechanical kind is better than nothing.