Monday, July 10, 2006

Lighting a Virtual Fuse

We Americans are currently debating the very Talmudic question of when a pre-emptive arrest is justified. On one side we have Michael Chertoff arguing that “We don’t wait until someone has lit the fuse to step in.” On the other side we have Martin R. Stolar arguing that “Talk without any kind of action means nothing.”

Assem Hammoud was arrested on April 27 in Beirut and accused of plotting to blow up a tunnel between New York and New Jersey. There is reason to believe that he participated in discussions contemplating the destruction of the tunnel, but neither he nor any of his associates had inspected the tunnel or even approached within a thousand miles of the tunnel. All the “plotting” occurred among participants in an internet chat room. The “plotters” had never met.

By American standards of criminal investigation, this is not much of a case. One would expect that a more deliberate investigation would have waited for the plot to unfold in more concrete terms. One might have some concern that an impatient investigator would attempt to accelerate the planning by offering to sell the plotters boots or fertilizer or a NYC subway map. (Among cases of preemptive detention, this one lowers the bar to encompass speculators and daydreamers.)

As Jews we have an even higher standard. If lives are in immediate danger, we act, of course. But no one is imprisoned for simply contemplating a crime, no matter how heinous. In fact, no Jew can be sentenced to death unless witnesses who see him about to commit a crime have warned him that he is about to commit the transgression.

The rules around convicting non-Jews are more lenient: no warning is necessary, but even so, the act must have been interrupted at a point where a clear and present danger had been established. What kind of heathens are those among us who imprison for merely chatting?