As I write this review, the country is in a fierce debate as to whether the United States should accept Syrian refugees from that war-ravaged country. Coming after a devastating attack on innocent civilians by Islamic extremists in Paris, many in this country are wary of accepting Muslims without serious background checks. I witnessed similar anti-Muslim sentiment after 9/11, when Islamic extremists brought down the World Trade Center towers. I have no opinions about this matter other than to accept the reality that the resolution to this problem is complicated and probably will involve a balance of kindness and caution. We want to help people in dire straits; but we also have to be prudent and not put our own citizens at risk.
This dilemma is the moral setting for Rendition, a tense thriller in which the government, without specific evidence, incarcerates a suspected terrorist because it does not want to risk him being at large to commit terrorist attacks.
Anwar El-Ibrahimi, born in Egypt, is a chemical engineer who lives in Chicago with his pregnant wife Isabella and their young son. When returning from a trip to South Africa, American authorities detain him because Anwar’s phone records indicate that Rashid, a known terrorist, has made calls to his number. There is no actual evidence, only a suspicion that Anwar is a terrorist. However, that is deemed enough to exercise the policy of rendition whereby a man is sent to a secret detention facility without access to due process of law. He simply disappears and no one knows of his whereabouts.
When Anwar does not arrive home as expected, Isabella begins to worry. As the days pass on, she contacts an old friend, now working for the government in Washington, to assist her in finding her husband, but to no avail.
In the meantime, Douglas Freeman, a CIA analyst who generally works behind the scenes and not directly with the person suspected of wrongdoing, is given the task of observing Anwar’s interrogation, which involves brutal torture. Clearly, Douglas is uncomfortable watching the torture and he has doubts about Anwar’s guilt. After questioning Anwar himself, he concludes that Anwar is innocent. Freeman’s challenge: how to stop the torture and how to restore Anwar to his wife and family.
In Jewish law, there is the presumption of innocence, what is known in Hebrew as a chezkat kashrut. You are supposed to judge people favorably, say the Sages. Always give people the benefit of the doubt and consider them innocent until you have evidence to the contrary.
A case from the Talmud is instructive. The Talmud tractate of Sanhedrin (37b) describes a case of conjecture based upon circumstantial evidence. The judge asks the witnesses: if you see the accused chasing someone into a deserted ruin, and you followed him and saw him with a sword in his hand dripping with blood, and then you heard the cries of someone inside the ruin, this is not absolute proof of anything.
Even though there is a strong possibility that the person you see with the sword committed the crime, no definite conclusions can be drawn. It may be correct to hold such a person in custody on suspicion of a crime, but that should only be for a short time and certainly he should not be punished until he has his day in court.
Rendition is a scary movie. The film depicts a climate of fear and terror where the outsider is distrusted. At such a time, it is difficult to be open and generous. Although we need to assume the best of others, there are times when caution is needed. The Torah, after all, states that “we should live by its commandments,” not die by them. Rendition captures the essence of this moral dilemma.