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The Pillar of Cloud and the Pillar of Fire

Thursday, November 15th, 2012

[ by Charles Cameron -- IDF terminology and the Gaza conflict, explanations of Exodus, an IDF video, Megillah 10b and the koan "with God on our side" / "with God on all sides" ]
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photo credits: Schristia, Cloud; Chris Tangey, Fire

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I’m curious.

The IDF calls today’s Israeli operation in Gaza “Operation Pillar of Defense” in English, but as John Cook points out in Gawker, uses the term Hebrew term “Pillar of Cloud” in Hebrew.

There’s a great deal of interest here, apart from the difference between their use of non-Biblical terminology in English and Biblical terminology in Hebrew. One point that catches my ear, a poet being a poet, is that the phrase “Pillar of Cloud” is in fact only one half of a double reference…

Thus in Exodus 13.21-22 we read:

And the LORD went before them by day in a pillar of a cloud, to lead them the way; and by night in a pillar of fire, to give them light; to go by day and night: He took not away the pillar of the cloud by day, nor the pillar of fire by night, from before the people.

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There are various ways of understanding the pillar of cloud and pillar of fire, but it’s pretty clear that there’s only one pillar —

And it came to pass, that in the morning watch the LORD looked unto the host of the Egyptians through the pillar of fire and of the cloud… [Exodus 14.24]

which is called a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night, perhaps simply because we are speaking of theophany — the Divine Presence made visible — perhaps because smoke from a brazier is more visible in daylight and flames at night — perhaps because as Hans Goedicke, then chairman of the department of Near Eastern Studies at Johns Hopkins, suggested, the source of both fire and smoke was the eruption of Santorini around 1600 BCE.

The difference in worldviews behind those explanations alone is a matter of considerable interest.

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Linguistically, however — and this is where the poet being a poet comes in — there are two pillars, and I have to wonder whether the name “Pillar of Fire” is being saved for a later and perhaps more impressive (“shock and awe”) operation, or — in line with the “by day and by night” distinction — refers to the covert side of the same op?

Not that anyone would be likely to give me that information, or that I’d have any use for it if they did.

But the Biblical phrasing is powerful, and “Pillar of Defense” doesn’t make a whole lot of sense — besides, cloud and fire go together in Hebrew in much the same way smoke and mirrors do in English.

Of the three choices, I’d have gone with “Pillar of Fire” myself.

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An IDF spokesperson, in a response to Cook’s Gawker article, claimed:

I think that every example of Bible quotes you cited has defensive connotations, rather than “vengeful.”

One of those quotes is Exodus 14:24, which I quoted above but will now give in full, along with verse 25:

And it came to pass, that in the morning watch the LORD looked unto the host of the Egyptians through the pillar of fire and of the cloud, and troubled the host of the Egyptians, and took off their chariot wheels, that they drave them heavily: so that the Egyptians said, Let us flee from the face of Israel; for the LORD fighteth for them against the Egyptians.

I think calling that “defensive” is a bit one-sided, but on the other of the two hands in question, so is calling it “vengeful”.

The Israelites saw themselves in the larger context as escaping Egyptian oppression, the Egyptians obviously considered themselves under attack in the short term — just as surely as the people of Gaza must feel under attack by the oppressive Israelis today, while the Israelis clearly feel under attack by terroristic Hamas and its rockets. But hey, the IDF spokesman only offered his explanation that the Pillar of Cloud and Defense was “defensive” as “Just my two cents”…

FWIW, those two verses from Exodus sound just a little like Quran 33.26:

And He brought down those of the People of the Book who supported them from their fortresses and cast terror in their hearts; some you slew, some you made captive. And He bequeathed upon you their lands, their habitations, and their possessions, and a land you never trod. God is powerful over everything.

That’s an ayat that has always interested me, because of the use of the word “terror” found in a number of translations including this one, by AJ Arberry — others have “awe” or “panic”, but “terror” is interesting in the context of its contemporary usage.

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Here’s the current strike counter strike in two tweets:

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Okay, let’s get as close to visceral as modern technological warfare permits. After the recent truce was broken and numerous rockets fired into Israel, the IDF fired a missile that killed Hamas military leader Ahmed Jabari, and quickly put the video feed up on YouTube:

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People are killing and getting killed. Should that be a matter for concern, or delight?

The narrative from which the IDF drew the name of their campaign in Gaza is taken from that of Israel’s escape from Egypt in Exodus, which also includes the parting of the waters and destruction of the Egyptian army:

And the angel of God, which went before the camp of Israel, removed and went behind them; and the pillar of the cloud went from before their face, and stood behind them: And it came between the camp of the Egyptians and the camp of Israel; and it was a cloud and darkness to them, but it gave light by night to these: so that the one came not near the other all the night. And Moses stretched out his hand over the sea; and the Lord caused the sea to go back by a strong east wind all that night, and made the sea dry land, and the waters were divided…. [Exodus 14.19-21]

And it came to pass, that in the morning watch the Lord looked unto the host of the Egyptians through the pillar of fire and of the cloud, and troubled the host of the Egyptians, And took off their chariot wheels, that they drave them heavily: so that the Egyptians said, Let us flee from the face of Israel; for the Lord fighteth for them against the Egyptians. And the Lord said unto Moses, Stretch out thine hand over the sea, that the waters may come again upon the Egyptians, upon their chariots, and upon their horsemen. And Moses stretched forth his hand over the sea, and the sea returned to his strength when the morning appeared; and the Egyptians fled against it; and the Lord overthrew the Egyptians in the midst of the sea. [Exodus 14.24-27]

Here again we see an instance of what I have called the two-fold logic of scriptures: In the Babylonian Talmud, Megillah 10b, R. Johanan tells us:

The ministering angels wanted to chant their hymns, but the Holy One, blessed be He, said, The work of my hands is being drowned in the sea, and shall you chant hymns?

to which R. Eleazar responds:

He himself does not rejoice, but he makes others rejoice.

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To my mind, what we’re looking at here is a global koan: the immediate and eternal paradox of life and death.

But more on koans shortly.

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On fire: issues in theology and politics – ii

Tuesday, February 28th, 2012

[ by Charles Cameron -- burning and blasphemy ]
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The question here is a simple one: which is the more blasphemous? burning holy scripture — or burning oneself, a human being?

Now I imagine you think the answer to that’s quite obvious, and I do too. But there are people with the opposite opinion to mine — and when we burn their scriptures, even by mistake, even making apologies afterwards, they get enraged, and kill people. There may be many other factors that contribute to their rage, but this is the trigger, the religious sanction, the thing that pushes them over the top.

Someone tweeted the other day:

Souls are being burned alive in Homs & others riot over ink & paper. Where’s the logic?!

It is not my purpose to attack or defend anyone’s beliefs or opinions here — what I would like to do instead is to see through the rage and glimpse that logic: I would like us to avoid needlessly triggering it.

I want to bring what may at first seem utterly incomprehensible to us, a little closer to our comprehension.

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In the Quran 5.32, we read:

We ordained for the Children of Israel that if any one slew a person – unless it be for murder or for spreading mischief in the land – it would be as if he slew the whole people: and if any one saved a life, it would be as if he saved the life of the whole people.

On the one hand, that sets an extremely high value on human life — the Jewish equivalent is found in the Talmud, Tractate Sanhedrin 37a — and on the other hand, it can be claimed that that high value is set not by humans but by their Creator in his revealed Word, the Qur’an.

2.

What metaphor or analogy would allow me to understand that logic in terms of my own culture? Not the rage itself, not the killings — but the logic that potentiates them?

3.

If you think, as the melancholy Jaques has it in As You Like It, that all the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players – and as Hamlet might think, pondering what more things might be in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in philosophy – why then —

How does one weigh the value of the life of a Jaques, or Hamlet, of one of us, one single human being – of whom Shakespeare, again through his Hamlet, said:

how noble in reason! how infinite in faculty! in form and moving how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world! the paragon of animals! ..

against the value of a single copy of the Works of one William Shakespeare – who then continued on, through that same Hamlet’s voice, to ask:

And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?

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Shakespeare, the First Folio, Hamlet?
God, the Scripture, you or me?

5.

It is said the imperishable Quran is writ in heaven before time was, and there is a hadith of Tirmidhi that describes Allah reciting Suras 20 and 36, Taha and Ya Sin, upon hearing which the angels responded “Happy are the people to whom this comes down, happy are the minds which carry this, and happy are the tongues which utter this”.

I am not a literalist, I am a poet — so that makes poetic sense to me, the way Shakespeare’s “all the world’s a stage” makes sense.

In reading these words, I see for a moment the beauty, the devotion that is possible towards this book, the fervent dedication.

I am not about to kill people in the name of Shakespeare or the Gospels — yet I can understand a reverence for that which is greater than I, for that which is more than we dream of, and for that which “comes down” from thence.

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Suppose the body is a perishable scaffolding, and the book an eternal transcript written in the immortal soul…

And now recall what that eternal transcript says:

We ordained for the Children of Israel that if any one slew a person – unless it be for murder or for spreading mischief in the land – it would be as if he slew the whole people: and if any one saved a life, it would be as if he saved the life of the whole people.

The paradox here, surely, is that we are each of us the quintessence of dust – each of us more than is dreamt of in philosophy.

7.

May the soul of Mohamed Bouazizi rest at last.

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If a man comes to kill you, rise early and kill him first

Tuesday, February 21st, 2012

[ by Charles Cameron -- selected quotes: Iranian, Israeli, US, UN Charter and Quranic, New Testament and Talmudic views on preemptive war ]

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The Iranians are threatening it:

As tension grew in its nuclear dispute with the West, Iran was reported on Tuesday to have struck an increasingly bellicose tone, warning that it would take pre-emptive action against perceived foes if it felt its national interests were threatened…

Without mentioning Israel directly, Mohammed Hejazi, the deputy armed forces head, said on Tuesday: “Our strategy now is that if we feel our enemies want to endanger Iran’s national interests, and want to decide to do that, we will act without waiting for their actions.”

The Israelis appear to be discussing it:

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is looking for cabinet support to launch a pre-emptive strike on Iran, according to a report in the Haaretz newspaper.

The story sources a high-ranking Israeli official who said that Netanyahu is hoping to build a consensus for striking the Iranian nuclear facilities believed to be part of a programme for building an Iranian nuclear warhead.

Recent weeks have witnessed an on going debate within Israel as to the possibility of a unilateral military strike against the Iranian regime, however Haaretz reported that the doves currently hold sway within the cabinet, including interior minister Eli Yishai and finance minister Yuval Steinitz.

President George W Bush suggested it to the cadets at West Point:

We cannot defend America and our friends by hoping for the best. We cannot put our faith in the word of tyrants, who solemnly sign non-proliferation treaties, and then systemically break them. If we wait for threats to fully materialize, we will have waited too long — Our security will require transforming the military you will lead — a military that must be ready to strike at a moment’s notice in any dark corner of the world. And our security will require all Americans to be forward-looking and resolute, to be ready for preemptive action when necessary to defend our liberty and to defend our lives.

The UN Charter appears not to countenance it:

Nothing in the present Charter shall impair the inherent right of individual or collective self-defence if an armed attack occurs against a Member of the United Nations, until the Security Council has taken measures necessary to maintain international peace and security.

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Compare Qur’an 22:40:

Permission to fight is given to those against whom war is made, because they have been wronged

and Matthew 5.44:

But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you;

My title, If a man comes to kill you, rise early and kill him first, translates the words Haba lehorgecha, hashkem lehorgo which are found in the Talmud, Tractate Berakoth 58a.

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Lex Talionis II: the matter of Israelis, Palestinians and more

Saturday, December 10th, 2011

[ by Charles Cameron -- vendetta, vengeance, an eye for an eye, compensation, forgiveness, and the question of limits ]
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I didn’t want this pair of events to slip by entirely unnoticed.

The first image above shows part of the “wanted” poster with which Rabbi Menachem Liebman offered a $100,000 reward to whoever would kill Huliad and Nidar Ramadan, recently released by Israeli authorities as part of the prisoner-swap for Gilad Shalit, who had previously been convicted of killing his own son, Shlomo Liebman, a settlement security guard.

The second, lower image is taken from the reciprocating offer of a $100,000 reward made by Dr Awad al-Qarni on Facebook, to whoever who would capture an(other) Israeli soldier.

These things tend to escalate.  According to this AllGov report, Prince Khaled bin Talal of Saudi Arabia commented that “Dr Awad al-Qarni said he was offering $100,000 to only take a prisoner but they [unnamed in the original Reuters report, but presumably Israelis] responded by offering $1 million to kill Awad al-Qarni” – and himself pledged an additional $900,000 to the bounty on the capture of Israeli soldiers, bringing the total to $1 million.

Accompanying this story on the AllGov site, appositely enough, was this illustrated quote from Mohandas Gandhi:

For those who have trouble killing Ramadan brothers or capturing Israeli soldiers, lesser rewards are also available in the United States: this article reports that a “$4,000 reward has been offered for the identity of the police officer who may have been responsible for the injuries sustained by former Iraq war veteran Scott Olsen” during the Oakland Occupy protests recently.

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Juvenal wrote Semper et infirmi est animi exiguique voluptas Ultio — “revenge is the weak pleasure of a narrow mind”.

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Let’s think about this for a moment.

Lex talionis is the law of limited retribution – one eye for one eye – found (following similar texts in the code of Hammurabi) in the Mosaic law, Exodus 21.23-25 requiring “life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.”  The rabbis, however, commented that “inasmuch as the law seeks equity, its literal enforcement would frequently lead to gross inequity” [W Gunther Plaut, The Torah: A Modern Commentary, p 571. n. 6.] – and chose to interpret the text as mandating equivalent monetary compensation for value lost.

Tit for tat is a common expression of the same idea, and has also been used in a technical sense in strategies for the iterative playing of Prisoners Dilemma games referred to in my previous post.

Christ‘s injunction in Matthew 5.38-39 reads:

Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.

Similarly in the Qur’an, 41:34-35, Muslims are instructed:

Nor can goodness and Evil be equal. Repel (evil) with what is better: Then will he between whom and thee was hatred become as it were thy friend and intimate!

Joseph Smith, the first Mormon prophet, suggests in Journal of Discourses vol 2, pg 165-166 that such forbearance is appropriate the first time, but not thereafter:

Our enemies have prophesied that we would establish our religion by the sword; is it true? No, but if Missouri will not stay her cruel hand in her unhallowed persecutions against us, I restrain you not any longer: I say, in the name of Jesus Christ, by the authority of the Holy Priesthood, I this day turn the key that opens the heavens to restrain you no longer from this time forth. I will lead you to battle; and if you are not afraid to die, and feel disposed to spill your blood in your own defence, you will not offend me. Be not the aggressor—bear until they strike you on the one cheek; then offer the other and they will be sure to strike that then defend yourselves, and God will bear you off, and you shall stand forth clear before His tribunal.

The New Testament, however, suggests that this forbearance is not to be exercised only on the first occasion…  Thus in Matthew 18.21-22 we read:

Then came Peter to him, and said, Lord, how oft shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? till seven times? Jesus said to him, I say not to you, Until seven times: but, Until seventy times seven.

Also of interest is here the (possibly apocryphal) story of the Dalai Lama, who was asked how he would deal with a mosquito. “Brush it away,” he replied. “But what if it comes back?” “Brush it away again.” “But what if it comes back again?” “I crush it, and say ‘Come back as the Buddha!’”

For a detailed consideration of these issues in Islam, see Abdullah bin Hamid Ali‘s Islam and Turning the Other Cheek [.pdf], where this interesting discussion featuring the idea of forgiveness “seventy times” is also featured:

The Koran directs the Prophet — God’s mercy and peace be upon him — concerning the hypocrites, “Whether you ask for their forgiveness, or not, [their sin is unforgiveable]: if you ask seventy times for their forgiveness, Allah will not forgive them because they have rejected Allah and His messenger, and Allah guides not those who are perversely rebellious” (9: 80). After the death of the chief hypocrite, ‘Abd Allah ibn Ubayy, the Prophet — mercy and peace on him — saw no decisive prohibition in this verse against praying for hypocrites. This was, firstly, because outwardly the words give him a choice between asking forgiveness or not (Whether you ask for their forgiveness, or not…). Secondly, the verse mentions that God would not forgive even if he was to ask seventy times. His hope was that if he asked more than seventy times, it might be enough to secure forgiveness for Ibn Ubayy in spite of his open and insidious antagonism of the Prophet — mercy and peace on him. His companion, ‘Umar, contested this understanding of the Prophet’s — God’s mercy and peace be upon him. Later, the following verse was revealed confirming ‘Umar’s stance, “Nor do you ever pray for any of them that dies, nor stand at his grave; for they rejected Allah and His messenger, and died in a state of perverse rebellion” (9: 84)

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Perhaps Koholeth (Ecclesiastes 3.1) should have the last word:

To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven

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Lex Talionis I: the matter of Subramaniam Swamy and Harvard

Friday, December 9th, 2011

[ by Charles Cameron -- Harvard controversy, free speech vs hate speech, Hindutva, moral high ground & sanctions for and against violence ]

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I am grateful to various members of the New Religious Movements list for pointing me to the recent events in Harvard, where a group of scholars led by the formidable Diana Eck (her book on Banaras is a masterpiece and greatly treasured) have persuaded the Faculty of Arts and Sciences to omit two courses in economics usually taught by Subramaniam Swamy from their Summer School offerings next year, on the ground that an op-ed he published in Daily News and Analysis titled “How to Wipe Out Islamic Terror” fell under the category of hate-speech (as opposed to free speech).

The article in question is no longer available on the DNA site, but can be found on Pamela Geller‘s Atlas Shrugged blog.  An account of the controversy can be found on Inside Higher Ed, and Harvard Faculty’s debate was reported in the Harvard Magazine.

Subramaniam Swamy is President of what remains of the once powerful Janata Party and former Union Cabinet Minister.

With that as background, I would like to address the issue of the varying principles and rule-sets invoked as offering a moral high ground – or a necessary safeguard – in various religious and other traditions.

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I have read Dr Subramaniam Swamy’s article, and while the various quotes in it recommending specific actions — such as “Remove the masjid in Kashi Vishwanath temple complex, and 300 others in other sites as a tit-for-tat” and “Enact a national law prohibiting conversion from Hindu religion to any other religion” – give western readers a sense of Swamy’s overall mindset and intentions, it was another quote that held my attention:

This is Kaliyug, and hence there is no room for sattvic responses to evil people. Hindu religion has a concept of apat dharma and we should invoke it. This is the moment of truth for us.

I suspect the reason this quote has not been featured in the reports I’ve read of the debate have to do with the number of words in it that are unfamiliar to the western reader.

I’m acquainted with Kaliyug (the Age of Darkness) and with the concept of the sattvic (“Sattva is a state of mind in which the mind is steady, calm and peaceful” to quote the sacred Wiki), but had to dig a bit to discover that apat dharma is essentially “righteousness in emergencies”:

There are special Dharmas during critical and dangerous circumstances. They are called Apat-Dharma.

Swami Sivananda

Apat Dharma: They are duties that come to one under extraordinary circumstances, in crisis or in emergencies (apatmulakah). In such circumstances, even that which under normal circumstance is deemed wrong becomes dharma (tatra adharmo’pi dharmah). Here the righteous motives guide our actions (bhava-suddhimattvat). Normally a doctor gives anaesthesia before operating the patient but an emergency operation performed on the battlefield to save the life or limb of a soldier on the battlefield may be done without anaesthesia and with the instruments available, be they sterilized or not. When emergency is declared in the country, the elected parliament can be dismissed, the Constitution suspended and the ruler assumes extra-ordinary powers to deal with the situation. When peace prevails, the youth of a country should get education and work, but during war, the country may call upon its youth to sacrifice their education and fight in defence of the country, sometimes with hardly any training.

Sanjeev Nayyar

So that quote – “This is Kaliyug, and hence there is no room for sattvic responses to evil people. Hindu religion has a concept of apat dharma and we should invoke it. This is the moment of truth for us” – is essentially the abstract principle on which Swamy’s various proposals are based, and thus corresponds to the principles articulated by PM Netanyahu in his recent opening of the Knesset as underlying his government’s policies with regard to national security:

Our policy is guided by two main principles: the first is “if someone comes to kill you, rise up and kill him first,” and the second is “if anyone harms us, his blood is on his own hands.”

If you want a sense of how important that quote about apat dharma is to a Hindu (and a fortiori, a Hindutva) reader, see the way it is singled out and quoted with an illustration of Krishna driving Arjuna‘s chariot into battle by “Sanchithere (I’ve used the same illustration at the head of this post):

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What am I after here?

It seems to me that we could use a brief yet definitive scholarly account of what the guiding principles of the various religions and secular worldviews allow their adherents, in terms of justice, forgiveness, pre-emption, retribution and retaliation.

This would need to include, compare and contrast such principles as:

  • The Judaic notions of pre-emptive killing (Netanyahu’s first principle, found in the Talmud and commonly quoted as ‘ha’Ba Lehorgecha, Hashkem Lehorgo, If someone tries to kill you, rise up and kill him first) and the injunction, in fighting the Amalekites, “Now go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not; but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass” (1 Samuel 15:3).
  • Christ’s “But I say unto you which hear, Love your enemies, do good to them which hate you.” (Luke 6.27)
  • Christian “just war” theology.
  • The western / UN “norm” that some actions are simply beyond the pale, unacceptable under any circumstances (essentially the basis for war crimes tribunals)
  • Game theory’s “tit for tat” strategy in an iterated Prisoners’ Dilemma as proposed by Anatol Rapaport and articulated by Robert Axelrod in his book, The Evolution of Cooperation.
  • The Islamic tradition’s notion of response in kind (Qur’an: 2.194, “and so for all things prohibited, — there is the Law of Equality. If then anyone transgresses the prohibition against you, transgress ye likewise against him but fear Allah, and know that Allah is with those who restrain themselves”) – which would appear to imply that actions that would not normally be acceptable may be appropriate in response to an enemy that has already “transgressed” in that specific manner
  • Gandhi’s ahimsa, together with his corollaries, “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind” (attributed) and “It is better to be violent, if there is violence in our hearts, than to put on the cloak of nonviolence to cover impotence.”
  • Swamy’s own “This is Kaliyug, and hence there is no room for sattvic responses to evil people” and “the nation must retaliate — not by measured and ‘sober’ responses but by massive retaliation.”
  • Buddha’s “Victory breeds hatred. The defeated live in pain. Happily the peaceful live giving up victory and defeat” (Dhammapada15,5)…

… and so forth.

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I am grateful for further pointers and comments you may care to offer.

I hope to follow this post up with another, Lex Talionis II, which will address the use of private rewards for revenge killings in the Israeli / Palestinian matter.

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