A Herculean task

You find provocative pieces related to terrorism just about anywhere these days.  Remember the Rolling Stone cover piece on Dhzokhar Tsarnaev (one of the Boston Marathon bombers) that got all that attention last year?

I recently read an essay on the “Hydra paradox” in the UK magazine New Scientist (full disclosure: I have been reading this magazine since my days as an intern translator with the Canadian government back in 1982).  The author, Peter Abrams, cites work he has carried out with his colleague Hiroyuki Matsuda on the surprising effects of culling populations of unwanted animals.  In a nutshell, sometimes a higher death rate actually increases the size of the population.  The analogy of course is to the battle between the Greek demi-god Hercules and the nine-headed monster Hydra – every time the hero cut off a head, two more would sprout (you can see the entire New Scientist article here).

This got me thinking about the time former US Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld asked: “are we creating more terrorists than we are killing?”  Good question.

I have already expressed my views on terrorist leadership decapitation and drone strikes.  Polling in a number of countries shows that the latter actually increase support for extremist groups.

So maybe a largely military response is not the way to go. Of course, there is a role for the military to play in targeting and sidelining active extremists (after all, a dead terrorist is no longer a threat).  But we need to think more broadly.  Killing someone does little to undermine the ideology that created the terrorist in the first place.  This requires a much wider response at a variety of levels.  We know what the ideology is: groups like ISIS are not shy in promoting their world view.

We need to be smart about this. Tackling radicalization is a multi-year complicated effort. Let’s do this right and not make the problem worse.

Getting back to our Greek hero, in the end Hercules needed help from his nephew, who cauterized the stumps where his uncle had severed a head to prevent the new one from appearing. In other words, the two succeeded because they got to the root of the problem.  So you see?  Greek myths still provide insight thousands of years later.  Maybe we should learn about creative solutions and multiple partners

We will have to engage our opponents in the “war on terror” (I hate that term and will return to it in a future blog) intelligently if we hope to win and prevent finding ourselves neck-deep in the stuff Hercules later removed from the Augean stables.


1 thought on “A Herculean task

  1. Steve Carter

    The last couple of times I gave my presentation at CTIO, I have used the analogy of the planarian, the fresh water flatworm that regenerates when sliced up. The more you cut it up, the more little worms you have. My point was, like yours above, that military efforts like drone strikes can weaken/diminish the ability of terrorist groups but in many cases they have the long-term effect of creating smaller offshoots/an environment for recruitment that might grow into a larger organism/organization. Not as good as an example as yours, but it got the point across. Finally, did Donald Rumsfeld actually say that? I didn’t realize he was capable of such reflection.


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