Advice and Dissent

Credit for the now-popular term `preventive assassinations' goes to a trusted advisor of King David, who gave what turned out to be rather dubious counsel.

Now that Chairman Yasser Arafat is no longer relevant, and presumably not a target for "targeted preventive assassinations" anymore (although, according to official spokesmen, he never was), it is interesting to see who it was that originally came up with the idea of "squashing the snake's head."

"Preventive assassinations," until recently Sharon's preferred way of fighting terror, means killing the leader of the opposing faction as a means of achieving a political end - a concept implemented by many governments throughout the ages, although seldom proclaimed to be an official policy in modern times.

The credit should go to one Ahithophel, and details about him may be read in the second book of Samuel, chapters 15-17. Ahithophel of Gilo was the trusted and close advisor of King David, but when Absalom, the king's beloved, beautiful and long-haired son, conspired against his father, Ahithophel decided to switch sides. And when David heard of this, he was mightily worried.

Here it should be noted that the Hebrew expression coined nowadays for this act of "preventive assassination" is "sikul memukad": literally, "targeted prevention." The word "sikul" itself stems from the Akkadi "saklu," or folly. It is used, as a verb, by King David, when he asks God to defeat the counsel of Ahithophel: "O Lord. I pray Thee, turn the counsel of Ahithophel into foolishness," says David (in the King James version of the Bible).

David trusted in God, but being of a practical turn of mind, did not stop at praying. He delegated his close friend, Hushai the Archite, to serve as a "mole" in Absalom's camp, with the explicit orders "then mayest thou for me to defeat the counsel of Ahithophel."

The first bit of advice that Ahithophel dispensed to Absalom was: "Go in unto thy father's concubines, which he hath left to keep the house, and all Israel shall hear that thou art abhorred of thy father: then shall the hands of all that are with thee be strong."

Hushai let that piece of advice go through - and Absalom implemented it. Luckily, this practice was not followed by modern regimes.

The second bit of advice proffered by Ahithophel was, indeed, to perform a preventive assassination, and he volunteered to do it himself (with 12,000 chosen men): "And I will come upon him while he is weary and weak handed ... and I will smite the king only: And I will bring back all the people unto thee: the man whom thou seekest is as if all returned; so all the people shall be in peace."

This second suggestion, although initially accepted by Absalom, was not followed. Hushai went into action in David's service, and said, "the counsel that Ahithophel hath given is not good at this time." He recommended an all-out war, and at the same time, sent emissaries to David, to warn him of Ahithophel's counsel.

The frustrated Ahithophel, whose advice was not followed, went home and committed suicide by hanging himself. Hushai's advice turned out to be bad (for Absalom, not for David), as Absalom's plot was defeated and he himself was killed.

Oddly enough, in proverbial modern Hebrew, "Ahithophel's counsel" means bad advice. As a matter of fact, his was good advice, although good for Absalom and not for David - and, moreover, good only in theory as it was never implemented. For all practical purposes, it could have turned out to be folly.

And was it not Ehud Barak who claimed that all political actions should be judged by their results?

The first to be false

Although his advice may have been good, Ahithophel does not enjoy a good reputation in English either. John Dryden (1631-1700), the English poet laureate at the court of Charles II, used the story of Absalom's plot in his long (1,031-line) satirical poem "Absalom and Ahithophel." He writes about Charles II, a Catholic king who tried to come to terms with his mainly Protestant constituency, who had no legitimate male offspring and was worried about the problem of succession. The king's brother, the Duke of York, the legal heir to the throne and hero (Dryden wrote a poem about his naval victory over the Dutch in 1667, "Annus Mirabilis"), was openly Catholic. The king's natural son, the Duke of Monmouth, was idolized by the people. The Earl of Shaftesbury, the Ahithophel in Dryden's poem, was an out and out Protestant who spared no effort to induce Monmouth to conspire against the king.

Here is what Dryden has to say about Ahithophel: "Of these the false Ahithophel was first: / A name to all succeeding ages curst. / For close designs, and crooked counsels fit; / Sagacious, bold and turbulent of wit: / Restless, unfixt in principles and place; / In pow'r unpleased, impatient of disgrace."

In Dryden's poem, when he writes about the Jews, he means the Protestants. Here is what he has to say about them, and how relevant and apt it sounds today: "The Jews, a headstrong, moody, murm'ring race, / As ever tri'd th'extent and stretch of grace; / God's pamper'd people whom, debauche'd with ease, / No king could govern, nor no God could please."

Who was it that claimed that satire is only good for its time?