During the High Holidays, there is one prayer that stands out as the high point of the service. The cantor chants, “On Rosh HaShanah it is written, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed! — How many will pass on, and how many will be born; who will live and who will die; who will live a long life and who will come to an untimely end; who will perish by fire and who by water; who by sword and who by beast…”
The prayer’s theme is that matters of life and death are in God’s hands — God chooses who will live and who will die, but we can influence God’s decision through repentance, prayer and acts of charity. On Rosh HaShanah, we declare that God is the ultimate arbiter over life and death. God can decide because God can recall all that is forgotten, and God will remember every deed that we have done or forgotten to do. The message is that we human beings can never be as sure as God about deciding matters of life and death.
We live in a time of great danger and fear, and we live in a time when the U.S. government has empowered itself to decide who should live and who should die. Terrorists have attacked our country and others; they have killed thousands of innocent people around the world. In order to keep such violence from our land, the United States military and intelligence agencies have embarked on an aggressive campaign to attack and kill potential terrorists by the use of drones — pilotless planes that are directed from distant bases. They can swoop down suddenly and fire a missile at a moving vehicle or at residential building. In this way, our country has sought to prevent violence from reaching our shores.
Yet there is something about drone warfare that is profoundly disturbing. How do our military and intelligence officials know if someone is a potential terrorist? Do we know the criteria by which a person or persons are targeted? Is it someone who is poised to kill, or is it someone who once killed? Is it prevention or revenge?
Recall that Scripture teaches us never to take revenge. Recall the importance of being sure that someone is about to commit a crime. Our leaders have not explained to us how they know someone is about to commit an act of terrible violence.
Moreover, we know that there has been collateral damage in drone warfare — civilians, women and children have been killed. How many people who are not terrorists have been lost to drone warfare? Can there ever be an acceptable level of innocent people dying terrible violent deaths? I worry about all of our souls when we don’t know, and are willing to ignore, the extent of civilians killed in our name through drone attacks.
As a religious leader dedicated to safeguarding human rights, I approach issues like this through questions of morality, faith, politics and history. But the questions of drone warfare first hit me most powerfully as a grandfather. Last summer on a beautiful sunny afternoon, I was sitting in a park while my 15-month-old granddaughter was playing nearby. Slowly, I heard a whirring sound and could not figure out where it was coming from. Then I looked up and saw a very small aircraft, perhaps the size of a small round tray, flying overhead. I looked around to see if I could spot the operator of the drone.
After looking in all directions, I concluded the operator was not in the park, and for all I knew could have been far away. At that moment, I realized how frightening drone warfare must be. A harmless flying machine can zoom in and in a moment, shoot a missile and kill a child on the playground.
The taking of a human life is an action with profound moral consequences. We are all spiritually diminished if we do not take the responsibility to address these questions. People of faith have a special responsibility not to shirk these issues and will be gathering to discuss these questions at a first-time conference on drone warfare. These questions are not just for clergy or leaders, but also for all people of faith who are deeply concerned about the moral issues facing our country during this time of fear and war.
Charles Feinberg is a rabbi at Adas Israel Congregation in Washington, D.C. He is currently a board member of Interfaith Action for Human Rights and past co-chairperson of T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights. For more information on the conference, to be held Jan. 23-25 at Princeton Theological Seminary, visit www.peacecoalition.org/dronesconference.