“One thing I would do if I had the power,” he began again, “I would not take prisoners. Why take prisoners? It’s chivalry! The French have destroyed my home and are on their way to destroy Moscow, they have outraged and are outraging me every moment. They are my enemies. In my opinion they are all criminals. And so thinks Timokhin and the whole army. They should be executed! Since they are my foes they cannot be my friends, whatever may have been said at Tilsit.

“Not take prisoners,” Prince Andrew continued: “That by itself would quite change the whole war and make it less cruel. As it is we have played at war—that’s what’s vile! We play at magnanimity and all that stuff. Such magnanimity and sensibility are like the magnanimity and sensibility of a lady who faints when she sees a calf being killed: she is so kind-hearted that she can’t look at blood, but enjoys eating the calf served up with sauce. They talk to us of the rules of war, of chivalry, of flags of truce, of mercy to the unfortunate and so on. It’s all rubbish! I saw chivalry and flags of truce in 1805; they humbugged us and we humbugged them. They plunder other people’s houses, issue false paper money, and worst of all they kill my children and my father, and then talk of rules of war and magnanimity to foes! Take no prisoners, but kill and be killed! He who has come to this as I have through the same sufferings…

If there was none of this magnanimity in war, we should go to war only when it was worth while going to certain death, as now. Then there would not be war because Paul Ivanovich had offended Michael Ivanovich. And when there was a war, like this one, it would be war! And then the determination of the troops would be quite different. Then all these Westphalians and Hessians whom Napoleon is leading would not follow him into Russia, and we should not go to fight in Austria and Prussia without knowing why. War is not courtesy but the most horrible thing in life; and we ought to understand that and not play at war. We ought to accept this terrible necessity sternly and seriously. It all lies in that: get rid of falsehood and let war be war and not a game. As it is now, war is the favorite pastime of the idle and frivolous.”

-Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace

Economists would call the Israeli position on prisoners a problem of excessive discount rate. Elected politicians have a very short time horizon, and simply do not care what flood comes after them. Acting in self-interest, they trade the country’s long-term benefits for personal benefit in public relations, however meager. This is the logic of prisoner exchanges.

In principle, prisoner exchanges are wrong even if they are equal because they violate the most important principle of justice, its unavoidability. This can be likened to prosecutors telling petty criminals that it is not feasible to punish them, and so they are free to go. Expedient? You bet, especially because it allows the police to devote precious resources to more important criminals. But simplicity comes with consequences: the absence of punishment invites more crime of the unpunished kind, and justice is destroyed. Think about it: justice is inherently cruel and wasteful. It is a promise to would-be criminals that society will find and punish them. What for? To restore the status quo antedelictum, the normal situation which was distorted by the criminal act. To remove the ripples from the idyllic surface of the society. To restore the divinely ordained order of things, which has been distorted by criminals. And why postulate that criminals distort society rather than reflecting its natural order? That is the definition of crime: an unacceptable violation of societal order. The pagans who proclaimed that justice must triumph even at the cost of the fall of Rome confirm that as much as possible, justice is not about costs.

And just what costs are involved in prisoner exchanges? A half-dozen soldiers one time, a drug dealer in other instance, a hapless corporal who flaunted his orders, some bodies. Is this cost, honestly, too high to pay? Not at all. No one other than their families and their immediate circles of friends would care in the least if any particular Israeli hostages were killed. No one really cares about the dozens of soldiers who die every year even in the most peaceful times. No one remembers the exact figures of Israeli casualties in wars. Face it, other people’s deaths do not bother us excessively, nor do they endanger society.

Let’s test this assumption. It is possible to increase our soldiers’ protection indefinitely: by better weapons, armor, and medical care. But we refuse to expend unlimited resources in order to save a few more lives. Or take another example: the death toll from auto accidents in much worse than in wars, but we neither ban Arab drivers from Israeli roads nor pay bad Jewish drivers to use taxis instead. There is a limit to what we are prepared to pay to save lives. Prisoner exchanges long ago passed that low limit.

Only the government’s cowardice precludes it from acknowledging alternatives to prisoner exchanges. If we place such tremendous importance on bringing an unimportant number of our soldiers back, that importance must justify unorthodox measures. If we are prepared to break the law’s fundamental principle of unavoidability, why not break it in the less drastic respects? De-escalation, by such means as prisoner exchange, is one way of resolving conflicts; the other way is escalation. Instead of releasing enemy prisoners, we can apply pressure to them: we can stop releasing those who have served their sentences, transfer them from comfortable jails into pits, or even start shooting them. A violation of Israeli law? Perhaps, but not a greater violation than rescinding sentences in prisoner exchanges.

And possibly not a violation at all. Israel mistakenly insists on treating terrorists individually rather than collectively. They are enemy soldiers, not criminals. The fact that those soldiers resorted to terrorist warfare allows them to be punished more harshly and collectively, not given individual treatment. During WWII, saboteurs were shot rather than interned because in theory they were treated as criminals bereft of POW protection. Everyone understood that that was a flimsy legalistic disguise, universally tolerated it because of the general understanding that relatively lenient accommodation in POW camps does not deter terrorists sufficiently. Treating the Arabs as soldiers allows Israel to intern them until the end of hostilities instead of releasing them when their sentences expire. As for keeping security prisoners in pits rather than jails, that has nothing to do with legal justice. States can maintain different prisons for different inmates, and many states keep heinous prisoners in worse-than-pit conditions.

Treating the Arabs like enemies rather than lawbreakers would greatly simplify antiterrorist operations. IDF would be able to kill the terrorists on approach unless they succeeded in throwing a white flag promptly enough. Houses—enemy positions—could be then demolished by air strikes rather than stormed, with great risk to the soldiers.

Given such overwhelming reasons for treating terrorists as soldiers, why does Israel not do so? The answer has to do with power sharing. The Supreme Court has little authority in military matters as they belong to foreign policy. So, in an effort to establish the leftist court’s jurisdiction over the sensitive matter of our Palestinian peace partners, left-and-center governments insist on recognizing Palestinian freedom fighters as criminals. In fact, the Arabs get the best of two worlds: they are tried and released as criminals, but allowed Red Cross visits as POWs. Overall, Israel treats them as POWs in the foreign-policy arena and as criminals domestically. This dichotomy confirms that the real reason for bestowing on the guerrillas the status of criminals is bringing them under the Supreme Court’s authority.

In prisoner exchange schemes, the Israeli government gives in to foreign colleagues and domestic media, not to public opinion. The world over, people are flabbergasted by Israel’s disproportional exchanges; even leftist comedies (You Don’t Mess with the Zohan, for example) indicate the American public’s surprise over prisoner swaps. The attitude is far worse in Russia.

Consider this: when a bad Israeli movie depicted our soldiers killing Egyptian POWs in 1973 (yes, this happened), the Egyptians screamed murder and the Israeli government embarked on damage control, denouncing the story as false. No attempt has been made to tell the other side of the story: Egyptians shooting our POWs when they surrendered, murdering them in droves in the camps. The assimilationist government, forever ashamed of its members’ Jewishness, is concerned with foreign POWs more than its own.

In so doing, the government fails to admit what our enemies trumpet: that a single Jewish POW is worth a thousand Arab inmates. Hamas threatened to kill Shalit over Israel’s refusal to release 1,400 terrorists, big and small. The threat was very credible, but the world did not react. Why don’t we start killing those 1,400 on the Hamas list, one by one, until Shalit is released? If bringing him back justifies the release of a thousand terrorists, does not it justify the suffering of unfavorable media coverage of us executing jailed Arab murderers? Unthinkable? Not at all. Forget about Russia, where jailed terrorists have no chance of surviving until their release. In West Germany, terrorists killed a trade union boss (not a bad idea, per se) whom the government refused to exchange for their jailed comrades; in response, those jailed comrades “committed suicide.” In Israel, the shooting of Arab POWs was once a common occurrence; venerable Raful often delegated this unpleasant task to a certain right-wing Jew, later an ardent Kahanist, under whose guard the Arabs were always reportedly trying to escape.

What is the moral position of a government that sends its soldiers to arrest terrorists in risky confrontations instead of shooting them on sight or bombing their nests, and releases those terrorists in lopsided exchanges? We risked tens of thousands of soldiers to arrest the 1,400 terrorists earmarked for Shalit. And now the government exchanges this bunch—worth the lives of many Jewish soldiers according to the government’s own orders—for a single soldier. How moral is it to endanger tens of thousands of Jews, and for some of them to be killed, to extricate a single soldier blessed with a media-savvy family? Tens of thousands of soldiers suffered wounds and risked death in arrest operations; hundreds of families lost loved ones to those 1,400 terrorists; dozens more families stand to lose their dear ones to those terrorists once they are released—all for a single soldier. Or for six to twelve soldiers in earlier exchanges.

By agreeing to these exchanges, the government not only discounts prior suffering, but future suffering as well. Saving one Jew kills many. Media love hostages more than victims because a hostage story plays longer and has a human face on it; victims are too painful for the public to remember or even to look upon.
The Rabbis were right to ban the ransom of Jews kidnapped for political reasons: such ransom endangers more than saves.