What Has Deuteronomy Got to Do with Bullies on Facebook? (Deuteronomy 19:15-21)
The Torah verse in Deuteronomy, discussing false witness, may be particularly relevant to us now in the modern virtual era when bullies can tell lies that spread farther and faster than the most virile disease or brush fire.
The verse begins by indicating the number of eyewitnesses required to validate that a crime was committed by a given individual. It goes on to stipulate that providing false testimony is a serious crime in and of itself and a witness found guilty of perjury will be punished to the extent that would have befallen a person guilty of the crime for which the accused stands trial. The aim, the parasha goes on to say, is to eliminate evil from among humankind. This section ends with the famous: “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth”. In fact, the entire verse says: “Life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.”
While some interpret this as an injunction to punish physically and cruelly the criminal who physically and cruelly injured his or her victim, I feel it doesn’t mean that. This verse is not talking about the criminal and the criminal’s victim or victims, but about those who testify at a trial in which an accused is being judged guilty or innocent of a particular crime.
The Impact of Lies
What is the “value” of the false witness, the perjury provided as testimony? Will the lies totally devastate the life of the falsely accused? Will it cause somewhat minor, albeit no less detestable, harm to his or her life? Then the degree of harm caused by the lies should be the degree of punishment brought to bear on the witness who provides false testimony.
False Witness – Lies – on the Internet
As I thought more on this subject, my mind wandered to a more modern form of false-witness, a form in which we see young people’s lives ruined, some to the point of attempted and even “successful” suicide. This new arena for false witness is the Internet, more specifically but not only – Facebook.
We read about young people so maligned on Facebook that they refuse to return to school, ask their parents to move to another town, or they keep the cyber-bullying a secret, not letting their families know that their lives are being torn apart. “We hate . . . ” pages that get hundred of likes are ruining young lives. These kind of bullies are impossible to escape; running home and shutting the door to your room provides no solace. Today there is no safe place to which the bullied child or teen can retreat.
Another aspect of this tragedy is that even dealing harshly with the instigators and their ready cheerleaders will not provide a remedy. We all know that a libelous front-page story in the print newspaper will be recanted in small type hidden somewhere deep inside the paper when the truth comes out. However, the scandalous story will disappear, will, at some point, fade away when fish are wrapped in the pages or windows wiped clean with them. Not so the Internet – the story never disappears even after it has been laid to rest; it is stored on some cache somewhere, forever threatening to wake up and roar fire like a dragon waking up in his cave. Moving to another town will not help because the Internet is everywhere and Facebook friends encircle the globe without rhyme or reason.
Here we may have a whole mass of “eyewitnesses” to some foible or shortcoming who are all lying. The sheer numbers of those willing to give likes and shares to malicious lies is mind-boggling. Like the bystander mentality among a crowd of witnesses to an accident (for example, the case of the man who was pushed into the subway tracks in NYC some time ago), people are sheep who follow the leader. Not a single individual does anything to help – nobody does anything. One person reaches out for good or for evil – everybody follows suit.
It is interesting that this parasha, that talks about the minimum number of eyewitnesses needed to verify commission of a crime, also talks about an eye for an eye (life for a life). If one eyewitness claims to have seen something, that is not enough, if two or three or more claim to have seen something then it is believed that there is truth in what they say. So bearing false witness when you know that numbers lend strength to the lie is a most serious offence. And the Internet makes it so easy for bullies to ruin someone’s life.
Punishment and Prevention of Bullying on the Internet
The parasha tells us that the ideal is to make the punishment of the false witness fit the extent of the damage incurred by the crime of lies. However, it is not clear how we can do that. How do you measure the harm? How do you devise a fitting consequence for the instigating bullies and their sheep-followers? How do you even identify the major players?
To get rid of this evil, we need to raise children who learn to think for themselves and make their own decisions not based on the latest trend by the strongest among them. That would, however, render those free thinkers vulnerable to the same kind of bullying they may avoid participating in. And anyway, we’ve not been very good up till now of doing away with bullying in the school yard at recess so can we really do away with cyber-bullying? Furthermore, are parents any less swayed by crowd mentality than the kids they raise? What makes me think I would do any better were my kids young today? What makes me think I would have behaved differently than those who were present when that poor man was shoved onto the tracks?