I live in Israel where I often read about the moral dilemmas faced by the Israel Defense Forces as they fight terror that threatens the fabric of daily life. There are no simple answers to these complex questions. I reflected on this reality as I watched Sicario, a tense and unsettling look on law enforcement in America as it tries to control illegal drug trafficking in Mexico, a drug trade that infiltrates the southern border of the United States.
The story begins with an FBI SWAT raid of a home used by Mexican drug cartel kidnappers. Agent Kate Macer and her partner Reggie Wayne discover dozens of dead bodies, presumably executed by drug dealers. Kate’s boss thinks highly of her and recommends that she participate in a special task force put together by the Defense Department and the CIA to ferret out the people who caused these horrific murders.
The leaders of the team are CIA agent Matt Graver and his partner Alejandro Gillick, who are joined by U.S. Marshals and an elite cohort of Delta Force soldiers. Their target is Manuel Diaz, one of the major players in the drug cartel operation. As the mission progresses, Kate wonders what the true purpose of the mission is. Gradually she learns that Diaz is only important for his connection to the drug lord Fausto Alarcon.
In order to reach him, many may die. CIA agent Graver believes that collateral damage is worth it if they achieve the goal of disrupting the flow of drugs into America. Kate sees it as using immoral means to attain worthy goals. She is uncomfortable with the mission, which expects her to compromise truth in order to attain the desired results.
Jewish tradition asks us to consider the moral calculus before embarking on a mission that involves compromising one’s integrity. The litmus test is whether the action fits within the parameters of the Torah and Jewish Talmudic law, which offers general guidelines as to how to deal with these very thorny moral questions.
In an article on battlefield ethics based on sources in the Talmud and Codes of Jewish Law, Rabbi Michael Broyde outlines the conditions that allow for a theoretical “license to kill.” One may not kill an innocent third party to save someone’s life. One may not compel a person to risk his life to save another. One may not kill a person after he has already committed an evil act, and one may not use more force than is minimally needed. Moreover, before waging battle, one must first try to establish peace. Of utmost importance is killing only combatants, not innocent people. They must be given a chance to leave the battle theater. Once these conditions are met, then one has a theoretical “license to kill.”
When one considers these givens of Jewish tradition as guidelines for proper conduct, we see that the good guys in Sicario operate in morally ambiguous terrain. It is not easy to live in this environment, which continually tests our sense of right and wrong.
Understanding this reality, Alejandro advises the morally sensitive Kate to leave: “You should move to a small town, someplace where the rule of law still exists. You will not survive here. You are not a wolf, and this is a land of wolves now.”
Sicario is not a typical action flick, although it has its share of tense and visceral action scenes. The film also makes us think about the complexity of law enforcement in an environment where there is no respect for the law. There are no easy answers for someone with a conscience. Kate Macer is thrown into chaotic universe with no moral center, and it unnerves her. Watching Sicario unnerves us as well.