The Struggle with Terrorism

Ronald Rolheiser
Reproduced with Permission

There’s an old axiom that says that the country with the best poets eventually triumphs. The strength of a people, in the end, lies not in its military power, but in its faith, moral fiber, imagination, and in the vision of its poets, artists, philosophers, and priests.

Never has this been more true, and harder to believe, than today in our struggle with terrorism and the merciless violence it has unleashed all over the planet. To make peace with terrorism, as we are painfully learning, will require more than guns and military might. It is going to require new imagination, new poetry, and a moral stretch to which we are unaccustomed. This is a different kind of enemy, one that seems to grow the more it is crushed.

The novelist, Barbara Kingsolver, in a book of essays entitled Small Wonder, brilliantly describes what we are facing:

This new enemy is not a person or a place, it isn’t a country; it is a pure and fearsome ire as widespread as some raw element like fire. I can’t sensibly declare war on fire, or reasonably pretend that it lives in a secret hideout like some comic-book villain, irrationally waiting while my superhero locates it and then drags it out to the thrill of my applause. We try desperately to personify our enemy in this way, and who can blame us? It’s all we know how to do. Declaring war on a fragile human body and then driving the breath from it - that’s how enmity has been dispatched for all of time, since God was a child and man was even more of one.

But now we are faced with something new: an enemy we can’t kill because it’s a widespread anger so much stronger than physical want that its foot soldiers gladly surrender their lives in its service. We who live in this moment are not its cause - instead, a thousand historic hungers blended together to create it - but we are its chosen target. We threaten this hatred, and it grows. We smash the human vessels that contain it, and it doubles in volume like a magical liquid poison and pours itself into many waiting vessels. We kill its leaders, and they swell to the size of martyrs and heroes, inspiring more martyrs and heroes. This terror now requires of us something that most of us haven’t considered: how to defuse a lethal enemy through some tactic more effective than simply going at it with the biggest stick in hand.

The enemy, in the end, as Kingsolver points out, is not a person, a country, or a religion, but hatred itself. Only hatred can call forth this kind of sickness, indiscriminate murder done in God’s name. Only hatred sees murder as martyrdom. And, as Kingsolver points out, we’re not its cause, but its target. This is not to say that some of the things we have done in history and some of the things we still do today are not to blame for helping produce this (It’s wise to ask the question ‘Why?’ when someone hates us so powerfully) but the kind of hatred that foments murder in God’s name draws upon more sources than those for which we are to blame. Moreover this kind of hatred can’t simply be beaten with guns because it isn’t like fighting an army; it’s like fighting a plague, people die but the disease continues on to infect millions of others.

So what’s to be done? While military strength can never ultimately subdue this, this doesn’t mean that is isn’t necessary to contain it. A disease needs to be contained even while it is being fought. But, at the end of the day, winning this battle will require something beyond guns and bombs. To win, which ultimately means to win over, will require poetry, imagination, and a vision drawn from genuine religion.

Kingsolver, in searching for some vision, draws upon the Greek story of Jason and the Argonauts, Jason finds himself facing a particular kind of dragon which when it is slain and its corpse falls to the ground becomes even more deadly because each of its teeth germinate and instantly produce a new enemy, fully armed. So each time he kills an enemy, the enemy multiplies. He sees the impossibility of his situation, every time he kills something, he has more to fight. Eventually a woman who loves him, Medea, tells him a secret: Hatred only dies when it is turned upon itself. Jason takes her advice, gives up his sword, and instead finds a way to throw a rock cryptically so that it triggers an internal riot within which his enemies fight each other. Later Medea also shows him a way to slip an elixir of contentment into the mouth of sleeping dragons so that they remain peaceful.

Hatred only dies when it is turned upon itself. We are right in trying to contain it, but eventually it can only be defeated from within. In the interim, we need better poetry.