Friday, August 13, 2010

Armed & Dangerous?

What would you do if someone committed a robbery right before your eyes? How would carrying a gun alter your course of action? What responsibility, if any, do citizens have in maintaining law and order? And is there any difference if the citizen is also a soldier?

These questions were all I was left with after a sorry little incident came my way on Friday night. My friends and I were nearing the entrance to Liberty Bell Park (Gan HaPa'amon) when the sound of smashed glass turned our attention to a nearby parking lot. A young Arab had thrown a heavy stone against a car window and then fled. Moments later he returned. With a drugged look in his eyes the perp leaned into the car and dashed off with the car-radio.

As endemic as car theft is in Jerusalem, this is the first time I had ever witnessed one in person. My friends and I were hardly the only witnesses to the brash act of public larceny. Some two dozen Israeli Arabs were in view, with a hundred plus more hanging out in the park. One of the Arab families off in the park had just had their radio stolen and their car window smashed apart. Yet no one raised a finger as the thief scampered away into the night.

Part of the disinterest in reining in the crime may be the dissatisfaction some of the local Arabs have with the police. When one of my friends asked a nearby popcorn vendor to ring up the cops, he requested that my friend speak to the dispatcher. "They will listen to you," the old Arab vendor explained. "But if the police hear an Arab voice calling in about a crime like this, they will not take much interest."

I was not troubled by the failure of others to act as much as by my own. There I was, a soldier with seven months of combat training, and I did not so much as raise my voice as a crime was committed before my eyes! I could not help but wonder what if any difference it would have made if my gun had been with me rather than locked up safely at home (soldiers are encouraged to lock their guns up as soon as possible on weekends at home). With an assault rifle in my hands, would I have been emboldened to intercede? Or would the presence of the gun have simply been enough to dissuade the thief from such a brazen crime?

Israeli combat soldiers do not take their guns home with them on the weekends in order to discourage acts of crime. The idea is to look really coo... that is, to demonstrate responsibility and for self-defense. IDF code prohibits soldiers on weekend-leave from using their weapons for any reason save when life is in danger. Even if an armed soldier is held up by a mugger at gunpoint, the rules instruct the soldier not to use his weapon (though I have been told that in practice if the soldier uses his weapon on the armed robber he would not get in trouble.)

The policy makes sense. Consider that Israeli combat soldiers have the maturity of eighteen year olds the world over and the policy seems even more reasonable. And yet I cannot forget that a few months ago, only a few miles removed from the scene of last weekend's carjacking, I swore an oath over my gun "to devote all my strength, and even sacrifice my life, to the defense of my country and the freedom of Israel." More to the point, I swore a host of silent oaths when I became a citizen a year ago. Oaths about what sort of country I wanted to help create in Israel, a process that would not begin or end the day I enlisted in the country's military.

I was dismayed though hardly surprised by the casual racism my carjacking story evinced from a few of the guys in my unit. A young man I know to otherwise be quite sensitive told me the entire incident hardly concerned him since it was simply a case of Arabs preying on each other. When there are such raw differences of opinion on the minimum requirements of law and order then you know it is going to be a long slog towards any rational discourse.

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