The Echo of Melos: How Ancient Honor Unmasks Islamic Terror | Dr. Jose
Yulo | December 21, 2005
The Echo of Melos: How Ancient Honor Unmasks Islamic Terror | Dr. Jose
Yulo | December 21, 2005
"...it follows that he who uses force unsparingly, without reference
to the bloodshed involved, must obtain a superiority if his adversary
uses less vigor in its application. The former then dictates the law to
the latter..." Carl von Clausewitz
"Then we must stand like hunters round a covert and make sure that
justice does not escape us and disappear from view." Socrates
In Thucydidess The Peloponnesian War, the Athenian general
turned historian introduced future generations to the oftentimes disillusioning
realities of men at war. One of the works many strengths is its
ability to depict sharp turns in cultural behavior. The war itself has
been, and today is seen as a singularly tragic event which portended the
end of an epoch which briefly gave wing to Greek ideals; ideals so vital
to a fledgling West. The lessons taught by this account would serve the
modern reader well in light of the current struggle against Islamic terror.
A particular manifestation of the ways in which war alters even such a
unique and influential culture such as Greece, is how older staples of
measure and honor are so readily discarded in favor of the heady liquor
of political power. There are few better examples of this phenomenon than
when an aggressive, expansionistic Athens lands on the island of Melos,
an erstwhile Spartan ally, and attempts to broker a quick Melian surrender.
With thirty-eight ships and over three thousand hoplites and archers landing
on Melos, Athenian leaders soon sent emissaries to exchange with the Melian
leadership. Not wishing to involve a general address on this matter, the
Melians insisted that only their high officials should listen and deal
with Athenian offers. This choice may be interpreted in different lights.
First, the Melian magistrates desired to avoid the very possible outbreaks
of panic an invasion and ensuing siege induces. Melos and her citizens
knew full well that as a colony of Sparta, this visitone with demonstrated
Athenian military strengthwas no innocuous trading mission.
Second, by only allowing their best and most respected citizens to receive
an expectedly one-sided offer of peace, the Melians would have shown Athens
their resolve and at least the impression that this city state was in
control of its choices. In putting themselves between Athens and their
populace, the leaders of Melos conveyed their land as worthy of defense.
This stance was presented with the complete realization that however honeyed
the Athenian offer for peace was, it would inevitably rot the Melian standing
amongst other Greeks, bringing about possible hostility from its Spartan
Ultimately, the Melian rationale for this option was based on strength.
As the decidedly weaker party in these negotiations, it could ill afford
to further enhance this perception. Giving ravenous Athens pause before
the eventual pounce was a better alternative than to go meekly into its
Dallying little, the Athenian contingent advanced its intentions. Its
take on the inequities of the situation was paramount. Athens reminded
Melos that it could invoke its new, post-Salamis hegemony, or creatively
conjure up some offense dealt out by the Melians, to provide some rationale
for what was about to take place. In refusing to do this, the Athenian
representatives instead demoted the question of rectitude as being only
applicable in situations where both parties involved possessed equally
balanced levels of authority. This not being the case, Athens maintained,
"the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must."
Taking a Stand
Such a sentiment may be readily attributed historically to marauding peoples
such as Huns or Scythians, or perhaps more established military powers
as Assyria and Rome. In truth, among the Greeks, it was Athenss
rival Sparta that had the reputation both for austerity in both rhetoric
and realpolitik. Yet, it was not members of these nations who presented
the Melians with their barren alternatives. Athens, the birthplace of
democracy, philosophy, and the more refined Hellenic arts, was also known
as the singular champion of a political system seldom repeated in the
ancient world. It was democratic Athens, albeit a more ethically ambivalent
city state than it had ever previously been, which voiced these words
of acquiescence to power.
The Melian leadership, true to their convictions, did not receive the
inevitability offered without a challenge; though at this point a purely
rhetorical one. These elders cited (among other things) the catastrophic
future end of the empire Athens is trying to build, the chance of turning
peripheral city states into enemies, and the wishfully expected arrival
of a Spartan vanguard as deterrents.
When these more material coercions fail to curb Athenss own arguments,
Melos conjured in turn more metaphysical variables. Admitting their decidedly
inferior military and economic positions, the blessings instead of Olympus
were sought. This call was one which recognized the gods sympathy
for those who were "just men fighting against unjust."
It is ironic that after Athens is defeated and subjugated by Sparta after
the war, and liberated to install a new age of democracy, she will produce
some of the greatest exponents of justice philosophy has ever known. Socrates
and Plato will later on remind future generations of the need for reason
as a moderating force within mens souls and states, begetting the
virtue justice in each of these. This reason, a product of an earlier
epoch in Athens, a period preceding the citys current imperial desires,
was conveniently laid aside in this time of war. Reason and its ensuing
justice would have, in a previous age, told Athens not to put Melos in
However, this was the age of Athenian dominance, the city state paradoxically
performing the same feats it had so bravely fought off mighty Xerxes for
less than half a century before. Answering the Melian divine invocation,
Athens reminded its prey of the fickle, all too human quality of Hellenic
deities. Both gods and humans, it seemed, followed an encompassing dictate
for the pursuit of dominance as often as possible. Hence, of the gods
and humankind "by a necessary law of their nature they rule whenever
Here, it is possible to see the morally bereft position of the Athenian
argument. In seeking power through the expansion of territory, it must
first do away with established ethical guidelines. What better way exists
to discard these than to claim they never existed to begin with, that
even mighty Zeus himself shared mans own predilections? The shirking
of responsibility, another trait attendant to slackened honor, likewise
permeated this ethos.
With power being the only staple consumable to an Athenian palate, the
aggressors made a comparison of themselves to the Melians. Since as stated,
the natural drive for dominance and rule predated man and was itself adhered
to by the gods, anyone in Athenss position would have done same.
The Melians were reminded, "you and everybody else, having the same
power as we have, would do the same as we do."
This yet was another mark of the renunciation of Hellenic ethics. By elevating
power, not justice, by the elimination of the former, Athens could not
believe Melos would act for other more noble motivations. Worse still,
by knowing of the past virtues as being inherently better than their newfound
drives, the Athenian representatives must rationalize their actions by
dragging the Melians through the selfsame mud of their advances.
Inevitably, and perhaps in spite of the spirited rhetorical defenses proffered
by both sides, the dialogue at Melos turned into the siege and sack of
that island. All Melian males were slain, and the lands women and
children sold into slavery. It would seem that mercy would not be possible
if at first its corresponding virtue, justice, were never present.
The Present Day Situation
Although chronological variations remove direct parallelism of this time
and event from the current epoch, there nevertheless are some points where
the Melian Dialogue is pertinent to the larger war against Islamic terror
at large, and the recent Muslim rioting in France in particular. In these
comparisons, elements of the West and Islam will shift and assume perspectives
contained in Thucydidess masterful account.
First and in general, the West and other peaceful nations must realize
the concrete and deliberate danger posed by Islamic terrorism. There are
today many well-meaning voices urging for the consideration of past ills
heaped upon the ancestors of the current crop of militants. These oftentimes
take the appearance of perpetually wanting to support the politically,
economically, and militarily weaker party. There are fewer eras when this
same affinity for militant minority groupsat times excusing the
acts perpetrated by agents of theseis more vocal than the current
day. However, there is no romanticized cause or personality sacred enough
as to wash away innocent blood already staining the streets of capitals
the world over. The more nations pander to their factions within calling
for not treating Islamic terrorism for what it is, the longer they stand
apart from the Melian leadership who courageously put themselves between
naked aggression and their citizens.
This argument can be extended to modern nations, which do little or nothing,
for whatever reason, to stem the violence caused by Islamic terror. Though
not yet themselves declared acts of terrorism, the recent acts of Muslim
rioting in the suburbs of Paris share important commonalities with more
infamous attacks by Islamic militants. The riots were ostensibly caused
because of anger at the inequalities denying Muslim French youth the promised
largesse of Frances welfare state. Following a logical progression,
and the views of some supportive of perpetrators of the violence, these
acts were done to ensure a political end. The nature of the rioting involved
destruction of personal and private property, along with random attacks
at unarmed civilians. When the French leadership, in particular Jacques
Chirac and Dominique de Villepin, did little to stem the initial days
of violence in lieu of calls for tolerance, they chose not to put themselves
between their citizens and the actions of native terrorists.
This choice to not strongly confronting such aggression is in the very
least strange because the government of France, possessing far more political
power than local gangs, should be able to direct terms to the latter.
As seen from Thucydides, Athens makes no compunctions about the stark
realities of power politics. In France, and across broader frontiers where
Islamic militance challenges established civilizations, it seems it is
the politically weak that dictate to the strong. When members of Western
societies wonder out aloud, "Just what do they (terrorists) want?",
the crucial balance in this scenario of power shifts. Implicit in this
sentiment is the belief that if only demands were met, murderous violence
would stop. What then is one to make of the statements of groups such
as Hamas, who frankly expound on their wish to push Israel into the sea?
These desires are now echoed by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the new leader of
Iran, who only recently spoke of wiping the Jewish state off the map.
Not surprisingly, Irans Islamic theocracy is one of the worlds
major sponsors of terrorist groups such as the Lebanon-based Hizbollah.
How then do sovereign states and international institutions respond to
these threats? An institution such as the United Nations maintains a position
wherein Israel itself is guilty of oppressing Palestine and, subsequently,
its militant organization Hamas. UN chief Kofi Annan recently celebrated
a day of solidarity with the Palestinian cause. Members of the European
Union flexed their financial muscle and "reprimanded" Iran,
which brought about a garbled rationalization from Ahmadinejad.
Perhaps it is this penchant for viewing terrorists as belonging to victimized
societies that slurs the willingness of some to hold them liable for their
actions. In the United States post-September 11, many voices in academia
were quick to point out the potential folly in rushing to judge after
thousands of innocents were incinerated. Instead of judgment, faculty
such as Edward Said and Noam Chomsky strove to make American citizenry
aware of the various plagues visited by the West on Middle Eastern cultures.
In fact, it was the American people who were in some byzantine way culpable
for their own suffering. It seems that in exchange of the search for justice,
a civilization assaulted need turn its view to another virtue: tolerance.
The aforementioned French leadership, in its hesitance to assume early
control of the situation during its fall riots, could be heard on a daily
basis pleading for understanding and tolerance, chiefly for perpetrators
of the violence. Seemingly, if only agitators could see self-penance and
openness, hearts would be lightened and, more importantly, the French
leadership would pass the "tolerance test" in front of the rest
of the world.
Return to Justice and Honor
When Melos cited justice and honor, it called upon virtues and mores they
knew most Greeks held in the highest regard. The approval of other city
states was unimportant to this end; the eternal standards themselves were
the only judges of any consequence. The French leadership, on the other
hand, is not only conjuring a grace seen as a weakness by its dissidents,
but employing a tactic requiring its primary legitimacy from an audiences
It is in the last, doom-filled statement from Athens that there may perhaps
be some measure of hope in the conflict against Islamic terrorisma
conflict where the politically weak dictates to the great powers of the
world. Drunk with power and solely dealing in the coin of force and aggression,
Athens cannot imagine any city state behaving in a different manner than
itself. If Melos, Corinth, and, of course, Sparta were similarly positioned
as Athens was, these lands would naturally push their military advantage.
It ironic that although the young Muslim rioters in France clamor for
their acceptance and relief from racial oppression, they in turn directed
their violence toward some of the most vulnerable in French society. From
a disabled woman set on fire on a bus to the scores of nursery schools
lit by flames of spite, the rioters manifested their abject lack of compassion
while all the while demanding the selfsame bounty.
In this they are echoed by the nihilism of Islamic terror. Both phenomena
eschew the reasoned debate and discussion proffered to them by appeasement-minded
Westerners. Rather, they elect and choose to answer perceived maltreatment
with wanton violence. In places as diverse as Paris, Baghdad, and Bali,
blood and firenot words and reasonare the preferred means
While these macabre exhibits litter world capitals, the refrain often
heard from the perpetrators is one of reciprocity. These acts were seemingly
done in response to millennia of oppression. Yet it is this and only this
that Islamic terror offers the world. Though groups such as Hamas will
support charities to sanitize their image in the Islamic world, these
acts truly only extend to their own native borders. How then do Islamist
critics of the Iraq war answer to coalition soldiers risking their lives
building schools and hospitals for the young and the sick of a civilization
so different from its own?
Here is the weakness of the Athenian argument at Melos, one that is parallel
to the fallacy of Islamic terror rhetoric. Those worshipping on the altar
of power and the potentially evil actions it promotes and sustains itself
by cannot see the enemy doing otherwise. However, this congregation is
not (and has never been) alone in the many long and tragic annals of human
history. There have always been those who would profess the sanctity of
life, as well as justice, one of the formers greatest defenders.
It would behoove the recently embattled nations of the civilized world
to realize that the darker chapters of their past should not be cause
for their retreat or paralysis in the face of Islamic terror. Rather,
the leaders of these nations ought look at the Melian stand, and realize
that in contrast to this lesson from antiquity, theirs is the political
strength necessary to combat and defeat this scourge. The citizens of
these nations should likewise realize that justice and honorconcepts
long made passé in the lexicon of todayare merely dormant,
and deserve just as much of their efforts as tolerance.
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Jose Yulo, Ed.D. teaches courses on philosophy, western civilization,
United States history, and public speaking at the Academy
of Art University in San Francisco. He has a Doctorate in Education
from the University of San Francisco, with an emphasis on the philosophy
of education. He also holds a Master's degree in political communication
from Emerson College in Boston, as well as a Bachelor's degree in the classical
liberal arts from St. John's College in Annapolis, MD. Originally from Manila
in the Philippines, his research interests lie in Greek philosophy, the
histories of Greek and Roman politics and warfare, and the literature of
J. R. R. Tolkien.
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