The Hydra


September, 2001

Long ago and far away, the Hydra terrorized Argos. It had nine heads. That was already bad enough, but the middle one was also immortal. The second great labor of Hercules was putting a stop to its depredations.
He had no trouble attacking the beast, smashing head after head with his club. But two new ones grew for every one he destroyed. Fortunately for Argos, Hercules was smart enough to see where his efforts were leading. So he changed tactics. With the help of his servant, he burned the heads—all but the immortal one. It, he sealed away under a huge boulder.

Now, in our time, the Hydra has returned. Terrorism has become a recognized way for people who feel oppressed and railroaded to speak with power to those they blame for making their lives miserable. Catholics, Protestants, Muslims, Japanese, Communists, Serbs, Albanians, Jews, and Palestinian, have engaged in terrorism and most have also been victimized by it.

America is discovering what it means to be targeted. We were supposed to be invulnerable. But terrorism on our soil has destroyed thousands of lives in a matter of minutes; good people, people who were trying to help, people like us who were only guilty of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

In the aftermath of September 11th, we are showing each other the hearts that still beat under the stale choreography of public life. We have rediscovered the magic of coming to our neighbor’s aid. Thank goodness for that. It is a pity that it took such a calamity to reawaken the finest of American values.

But what of the Hydra that besets us? What will our champions do? We've seen time and again the futility of striking off the heads of terrorists. Decades of guerilla warfare did nothing to rid Northern Ireland of The Troubles. Israel and the Palestinians are no nearer to peace now than in 1948. In fact, suicide bombings seem to have developed as a response to Israeli attacks. Cutting off the Hydra’s heads has only generated more and more dangerous terrorists.

Will we, like the hijackers, seek vengeance? As if we could somehow get even for the atrocities perpetrated against us? Will we swing our military club in hopes of wiping out the ideas that drove the culprits to their act?

Now that we understand something of the ravaged emotions of the Palestinians, the Jews, and the Irish, will we also chant with glazed eyes, USA! USA! USA! That is the mindset of the potential terrorist, so easy, so seductive. I hope we resist it.

Instead, we can recognize the unavoidable consequence of making more people feel powerless. Starving Muslims are no less dangerous than grieving New Yorkers. Their urge to protect or avenge their own is no less than ours. They are like us. They are us.

We do need to stop those responsible for the attacks. They seem to be people who seek the dawn of a perfected new age by destroying the parts of this world that offend them. Whether couched in the ideology of Islam or Christianity, those who act on such horrific visions need to be taken off the streets as humanely as possible, preferably through the courts. Then we need to follow up with the cautery of respectful engagement and assistance to the aggrieved societies that produced them.

Our chance to defeat the Hydra lies this way, rather than through an attempt to reassert the old delusion of specialness and invincibility. We should embrace the unquestionable fact of human vulnerability and use it to aid each other, not only in the United States but everywhere. We can win a war on terrorism, not through a triumph of power as the merchants of death would have it, but rather by demonstrating to the people of the world the consideration and respect we’ve just remembered the importance of.

May we succeed. But we must always remember that one of the Hydra’s heads is immortal. However deep it’s buried, it will always lie in wait for new failures of human empathy to set it free.

—Michael Hopping
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