The First Noel: A Christmas Caveat

by Matthew Hogan matthewhnj@aol.com

This is a Christmas story, and even a Chanukah story, but you have to bear with me just a bit to get there. It is not a happy story, however, and some of its sad tale might sound like todayís happenings. But actually, it is a true story from a time long, long ago, though in a galaxy quite close, in fact, right here on this very planet.......

The young commander had his enemy cornered. They were Middle East religious fundamentalists of sorts, angry about their government and society existing under the influence of the West. These dissidents had terrorized the locals. But the commander knew what he was doing, and he had chased them into caves in the highlands of the country. Then, he formed special forces and equipped them with ingenious delivery systems that surprised and hunted the enemy right inside their caves, killed them, and smoked out their leadership.

When he captured the leaders, he decided that the best approach was a spontaneous military-style tribunal. He sentenced them to death and executed them on the spot. But while he had extirpated the rebellion, the government was upset. The law required due process for the captives and he had shown disdain for that. Demonstrations demanded he answer for his action. The head of government convened the national council and they summoned the energetic enforcer.

The commander showed up at the capital but his attitude to formal process remained the same. As he stood in the council, he refused any appropriate sign of humility and ostentatiously wore his military outfit. And he did not come alone; around the capital he had stationed his special and main forces, fully armed. The accusers in the council suddenly refused to press their charges, and only one brave jurist stood up to rebuke the commander for arrogance and the council for cowardice. But the charges were dropped and the head of state dismissed the council.

The commanderís boldness made him renowned. His own father, the link between the government and its Western patrons, had even urged him to back off but to no avail. Eventually, after another Middle East conflict, duly impressed Western forces would impose the young commander as head of government. The same jurist who opposed him would fatalistically urge acceptance of his rule as a sort of divine punishment.

And thus did Herod, son of Antipater, become the famed King Herod of Judea.

Herod is remembered in Christian tradition as the king who towards the end of his reign would massacre the children of Bethlehem in a fruitless effort to kill the Messiah. Though lacking that story, Jewish tradition in Talmud and elsewhere, as well as Roman history, still regard him as a ruthless tyrant capable of just about any crime to serve his interests. His favorite wife and sons would fall victim to his madness; imbued with Stalin-like suspicion, he would have them strangled, among countless others.

It may thus be wise to keep in mind that the villain of Christmas owed his reputation and position to hostile indifference to lawful traditions of due process, an indifference bred in a war against fundamentalist violence. We ignore due process at the perils of our very purpose. Whether the steps we are taking now are proper is worthy of debate, but whatever our position, the story of Christmas conveniently provides a warning about what can happen when the limits of military power are not vigilantly watched and bravely confronted.

To round out the story for interested history buffs: The events above, which took place about 40-50 years before the birth of Jesus, can be found in the writings of Flavius Josephus, the ancient Jewish-Roman historian. Herodís Western allies were the Romans who put him on the throne in Jerusalem. The government he replaced was that of the family of Judah Maccabee, the hero of Chanukah who freed the Temple and Jewish nation from the old Greek Empire. The jurist who tried to rescue the rule of law from arbitrariness was the heroic rabbinical sage Shemayah, a leader of the ancient Sanhedrin.