We all would like to be right all the time. But there are some dangers to have the right on your side without questioning it. I always had a distaste for people who claimed (or gave the impression that) they had morality on their side, but could only give it form and words when I read in Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms what Frederic Henry encounters at the bridge over the Tagliamento river during the First World war:
The second army was being re-formed beyond the Tagliamento. They were executing officers of the rank of major and above who were separated from their troops. They were also dealing summarily with German agitators in Italian uniform. They wore steel helmets. Only two of us had steel helmets. Some of the carabinieri had them. The other carabinieri wore the wide hat. Airplanes we called them. We stood in the rain and were taken out one at a time to be questioned and shot. So far they had shot every one they had questioned. The questioners had that beautiful detachment and devotion to stern justice of men dealing in death without being in any danger of it.Ernest Hemingway: A Farewell to Arms (1929)
The questioners here weren’t questioning. They, convinced morality was on their side, questioned for the sake of procedure, but knew the outcome: death by execution.
Pesachim 2 starts a discussion on this topic. It examines the exact meaning of the word אוֹר (light) in order to find out the time from when one should start his search for chametz in his house (and teach us a thing or two along the way) quoting Job amidst his despair:
Should one rise in daylight (אוֹר), he would murder, he would slay the poor and the needy, and at night he is like a thief.Job 14:14
The Gemara proposes that this teaches
From the fact that the end of the verse states: “And in the night he is as a thief,” apparently the word or (אוֹר) at the beginning of the verse is a reference to day, as the verse contrasts between night and or.Pesachim 2b
But promptly rejects this:
(…)If the matter is as clear to you as light, that the thief has come into the house prepared to take a life, he is a murderer; and the owner of the house may save himself by taking the life of the intruder. In that case, one may protect himself from a thief who breaks into his house, even by killing the intruder if necessary. And if the matter is as unclear to you as the night, he should be nothing more than a thief in your eyes and not a murderer; and therefore one may not save himself by taking the life of the thief. This verse is not referring to actual day and night; rather, it uses these terms as metaphors for certainty and uncertainty.Pesachim 2b
We are not allowed to kill, but when someone comes to take our live, we are entitled to defend ourselves. When it is as clear to you as it is light, you may kill him; but when he is a mere thieve, you may not.
Compare this to what is written in Exodus:
If the thief is seized while tunneling, and he is beaten to death, there is no bloodguilt in his case (אין לו דמים).Exodus 22:1
This is not regarded as a murder; it is as though the thief has been dead from the beginning of his criminal act. אין לו דמים is taken to mean: he, the thief, had no blood — no vitality. Here the Torah teaches you the rule: “If one comes with the intention of killing you, be quick and kill him”. — And this burglar actually came with the intention of killing you, for he knew full well that no one can hold himself in check, looking on whilst people are stealing his property before his eyes and doing nothing. He (the thief) therefore obviously came with this purpose in view — that in case the owner of the property would resist him, he would kill himRashi on Exodus 22:1. Also see Sanhedrin 72a
Obviously, when someone attacks us, we may defend ourselves, even with a pre-emptive strike. But we have to be empathetic and ask ourselves if we are sure. Is it clear we are being attacked or opaque? Is our attacker out to kill us, making it personal, or is he here just for business, to rob? Is he taking the risk that we see him, and for fear of being recognised, prepared to kill us, or is he like a thief in the night, not taking that risk?
Making this less bloody and more applicable to daily life: the Gemara teaches that in a conflict we should be empathetic to our opponent and use temperance in our reactions. We may have a moral right on our side, but we may be wrong, and may be wrong to use it to the fullest extent.
While being right, we may be wrong. But we should be prepared to rebuke. Empathy, and consciousness of the surrounding are key.
Thinking about Hemingway; whilst, on one of my motorbike trips visiting the former headquarters of the International Brigades in Albacete, I found the former Hotel Regina on the Paseo la Libertad where Hemingway stayed. There, nor at the Gran Hotel, which was the headquarters of the International Brigades, just across the road, there was any sign of Hemingway or the International Brigades. A farewell to history.