Men in Middle Eastern palaces making decisions about their lives, their families, their fortunes, their necks. I think a lot these days about such men because history and the fate of millions of people often comes down to what is going on inside their heads. They are certainly not unique to the Middle East. Think Robespierre, Mussolini, Marcos, Milosevic, think Idi Amin, Charles Taylor, Noriega, Fujimori. The list is endless, the impact of their choices monumental.

There is an ancient law in the Jewish Torah that forbids combatants from surrounding an enemy on all four sides, requiring instead that there is always an escape route. In the Middle Ages Maimonides, one of the greatest legal decision makers in Jewish history, concluded that this prohibition applies even to a mortal enemy in a defensive war. This sounds bizarre to the contemporary person saturated by media, video games and politicians, all exulting in the pulverizing of bad guys, but there it is in inconvenient black and white.

No explanation for the law was offered in the original codification, but commentators have suggested that this is an act of compassion even for a mortal enemy, similar to other surprising Biblical statements, such as helping one’s enemy in Exodus 23. Others suggest that it was a strategic law, along the lines of wisdom literature and prudence. It makes sense to offer an enemy the possibility of escape so that enemy troops will see relocation as a realistic option, that they will give up more easily seeing a way out, that this will divide the enemy, that this will conserve resources and energy, and shorten the war. This would reflect a pattern in ancient wisdom traditions, East and West, that prudence suggests a conservation of energy, a minimization of waste and a maximization of peace.

All of these explanations have resonance in at least some Biblical sources, but no one knows for sure–nor does it really matter. The beauty of ancient wisdom traditions is that they act as a distant goad to clear thinking in impossibly complex contemporary circumstances.

Just think of the onslaught, think of how much we have absorbed so quickly about the so-called ‘Arab Spring’, think about the myriad of facts, images, truths, half-truths, conflicting narratives, and all of that on top of a mountain of theories and facts of history, politics, religion, economics, and psychology. Then think about how you make moral judgments about politics. Do you only think of the ‘national interest’, whatever that is? Are you evaluating a course of action for yourself? Your country? Your military? Your overseas aid?

If you don’t try to clarify with thought, meditation and intuition, the choices that are difficult you end up being manipulated by media, by leaders, by your own apathy and exhaustion from data over-stimulation. Cutting like a scythe through all the questions about Libya, Syria, Yemen, Egypt, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Israel, are the choices that leaders are making about their fate, about what their alternatives are, and whether they are back up against a corner or have realistic options.

Here is the ‘fourth side principle’ in modern terms that states and individuals should embrace:

Always convey messages, directly or indirectly, that there is a way out. Make that path clear, make it enticing. Justify it, from the point of view of justice, as a way to prevent further injustices against victims of the future. As anger rises and outrages worsen move from the ‘way out’ of verifiable reforms, to full exit options with dignity, to exit with indignity, to exit without assets, finally to criminal prosecution, and from there to the ‘no way out’ of hostilities. Even then, if there are signals of real acceptance of resolution options then grab them. Nonviolent exit is always more efficient, prudent and just. There will be plenty of time for survivors to seek justice later.

Government officials who understand the logic of this principle and utilize it are hampered often by biases of narrow national, corporate or political calculations. This is understandable up to a point–no government official is hired to pursue his own sense of justice. But they can be prodded to elevate the national interest to align with what is most prudent, stabilizing and just. Responsible citizens need to pioneer the intervention in order to pave the way for government officials to do the right thing. We are often in a more flexible position to discover options. Making the noble choice easier and more enticing for leaders is the most prudent and ethical intervention we can make. It is downright Biblical.

© Marc Gopin