Notes From the Margins…

Terrorism: the Medea Syndrome

  • September 14, 2014
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Violence is a recurring theme in  Greek classical drama,  and the works of the three great tragic dramatists Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripedes.     All three were citizens of a democratic Athenian state that waged wars of conquest as well as defensive wars against foreign aggression, and some of them participated in these wars.   Aeschylus fought in the battles of Salamis and Marathon against the Persians, and Sophocles also fought in the Athenian army against Samos.

None of these dramatists were ‘anti-war’., but they wrote about the destructive potential of violence with extraordinary power and insight, and their plays can still speak to contemporary audiences.

I was reminded of this last week when I watched a National Theatre Live production of Euripedes’s Medea – perhaps the most shocking of all Greek tragedies.    The play tells the story of Medea, the wife of the Greek hero Jason, who takes revenge on her feckless husband when he marries the daughter of the Corinthean ruler Creon.

Rejected, betrayed and ordered into exile by Creon, Medea murders Jason’s wife and then murders their two children.   Her sole purpose in carrying out these crimes is to punish her estranged husband.

The emotional power and complexity of the drama stems from Euripedes’s ambivalent depiction of his vengeful central protagonist.    Everyone in the play condemns the murders of the two children – the chorus, Medea’s servant and Jason.   Even Medea regards her actions as monstrous, but her rage and sense of betrayal are so overwhelming that she just can’t help herself.

On one level, this is a story of a psychologically vulnerable and powerless woman, rejected by her husband and by Corinthian society which accepts him, but not her.   With no possibility of redress, she destroys her own children, because she knows that Jason loves them more than he loves her, and that this is the only way to hurt him.

Despite Medea’s horrific crimes, Euripedes invites his audience to recognize her predicament and even to sympathize with her, especially since Jason is a bit of a jerk.

Just as Euripedes presents the great hero Odysseus as a ruthless and vindictive victor in The Trojan Women, so he presents Jason of the Argonauts as mealy-mouthed, selfish and insensitive to the wife who has already sacrificed so much for him.

But Medea is also a dangerous woman with a history of violence.    She is a sorceress and flees the scene of her crimes in a chariot.   So maybe she isn’t such a victim after all.    And Jason tells her that he has only married again in order to provide for her and her children, and perhaps he even believes it.

All these complexities were brought to life by the NT’s brilliant and emotionally draining production, and particularly by Helen McCrory’s performance as Medea.     I will have to live a long time before I see acting of such visceral intensity and commitment.   McCrory completely inhabited her character, and captured her predicament with such passionate conviction that few members of the audience were unmoved by the final scene, when Medea staggers off into exile and misery, carrying the bodies of her murdered children..

The Athenians gave Euripedes only third prize for this contribution to the annual Dionysia festival in 431, perhaps because it was too shocking and disturbing even for them.

I have a particular, if somewhat esoteric and obviously anachronistic interest in this play.  In my history of terrorism The Infernal Machine I quoted from Medea in the last chapter and suggested that “the history of modern terrorism is filled with groups and individuals who believed themselves to be acting in response to intolerable wrongs, real or imagined, committed against them or others.”

I asked why so many people who have been involved in this kind of violence have been prepared to do things that were normally regarded as criminal and completely immoral, whose criminality and amorality they themselves often recognized.

In my book I suggested that part of the answer could be found in the soliloquy that Medea delivers before killing her children, when she says:

The evil that I do, I understand full well/But a passion drives me greater than my will.

Of course terrorism is not simply an irrational explosion of rage, but a technique of political violence designed to achieve certain tactical or strategic effects.     But injustice, oppression and marginalization are recurring themes in terrorist emergencies, and this context often enables certain individuals and organisations to believe that they have a ‘right’ to do horrific and immoral things to their enemies that they themselves would otherwise regard as completely immoral.

It’s this sense victimhood and injustice that enables so many protagonists of terrorist violence to justify their actions to themselves and to their various audiences.   Sometimes they themselves have been victims.   In other cases they are responding to perceived injustices carried out against other groups of people who they identify with.

This is by no means the only reason why such things happen, and I’m not arguing that every terrorist bomb or atrocity is some kind of cry for help, or that the killing of civilians and even children is a morally acceptable or proportionate response to injustice or oppression.     The vengeance that Medea inflicts on Jason is hardly ‘proportionate’ – and is in fact, far worse than what he does to her.

You don’t have to be a moral philosopher or even an adult to understand the very simple proposition that two wrongs don’t make a right.     But the history of terrorist violence is filled with episodes in which groups and individuals have ignored this very simple equation, in their desire to inflict pain and injury on their enemies.   And like Medea, they don’t actually care if their actions are morally acceptable as long as they desolate their chosen targets.

Governments generally ignore such motivations, but we do so at our peril. Because if our governments are complicit in injustice and oppression, and we allow such things to happen, then there will always be people who will hold us, and not our governments,  responsible, just as Osama bin Laden once did after 9/11, and they will set out to shake us from our indifference, and they will not care whether their actions are right or wrong or whether or not they are ‘proportionate’.

In 431 BCE Euripedes told the story of a marginalized and desperate woman who is ignored, betrayed and abandoned, and who carries out an inhuman act of revenge in which she loses her own humanity as a consequence.

Medea does get her revenge and that is all she wants.   And today there are too many places in the world, in which brutality, indifference and injustice have created men and women who don’t care if what they do is right or wrong as long as they can make their enemies suffer too.

Featured Image: James MacMillan.  Wikimedia Commons.

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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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