A Herculean Task

Tuesday, April 30, 2002

Defeating terrorism will require patience, fortitude, and the willingness to undertake diverse and difficult tasks, similar to the 12 labors of Hercules:

1. Hercules’ first labor was to kill the Nemean Lion, a huge beast with skin impervious to weapons of stone, bronze, or iron. Finding the high-technology weapons of his time of no avail, Hercules had to wrestle the animal down. Our technological superiority is an invaluable advantage, but in both intelligence and combat, there is no replacement for the human mind.

2. Each time Hercules struck off one of the many heads of the Hydra, replacement heads sprouted up, spewing venom. Only by holding his breath while cauterizing the stumps of the heads could Hercules destroy the monster. We must defend ourselves from biological and chemical attack, even as we dig out the roots of terror.

3. Hercules needed to capture the Ceryneian Hind, without using force, and carry her on a long journey. The little deer was sacred to the goddess Artemis, who had to be convinced that the task was necessary. Careful and continual diplomatic work will be required to gain and keep support for the American effort in this war.

4. To capture the vicious Erymanthian Boar, Hercules had to neutralize its enormous strength. He maneuvered it into a deep snowdrift, where its power proved useless. Methods other than direct, main force will be necessary and may be most effective.

5. The filth in the Augean Stables spread pestilence across the land. Instead of carrying the dung away in baskets, Hercules diverted mighty rivers to wash out the muck. To accomplish some tasks, the pressures of many nations will be needed.

6. The murderous Stymphalian Birds bred in a miasmic and impenetrable swamp. Occasionally they would take to the air to kill people with their knifelike talons and blight the crops with poisonous excrement. We will have to drain the swamp where the terrorists live and frighten them into the open, where they can be killed or captured.

7. Hercules subdued the Cretan Bull after a long struggle, only to have the goddess Hera set it free. The properly constituted laws and procedures of justice must be respected.

8. King Diomedes fed four savage horses on the flesh of passersby. Hercules turned the horses on the king himself. Those who harbor terrorists must know that they too will be victims of terror.

9. When the Amazon queen Hippolyte refused to give up the Belt of Mars, a pitched battle ensued. When Hippolyte was thrown from her horse, Hercules offered her quarter, but she chose to die rather than yield. Those who commit acts of war will be warred upon until they surrender or die.

10. Forbidden to pay bribes or use threats, Hercules rounded up the Cattle of Geryon and herded them home. The aims of war can be achieved without violating fundamental principles.

11. To gather fruit from the golden apple trees of Hesperides, Hercules turned to Atlas for assistance, offering to shoulder Atlas’s global burden. We cannot fight the war without the help of others, and we will have to help those who help us.

12. Hercules’ most difficult labor was confronting Cerberus, the Hound of Hell. When Hercules gripped the dog by the throat, three heads rose up, each with a tangled mane of vipers, and the dog’s barbed tail was aimed to strike. Hercules survived, protected by the lion’s pelt that he wore. If terrorists can turn airplanes into giant cruise missiles, what would happen if they controlled the nuclear weapons of Pakistan? A missile defense system is indispensable.

The new war on terrorism will take years to win. But the enemy is vulnerable, and many of our strengths are intact. The challenge is to apply our strengths in a way that is not just heroic but strategic as well.

— Charles Hill