We Risk Becoming Grendel’s Mother

Grendel's Mother


Last February, when fury against ISIS was burning hot following the beheading of American prisoners, I cautioned against becoming Grendel’s Mother. That caution is even more necessary today following the terrorist massacres in Beirut and Paris.

We become Grendel’s Mother when our grieving turns vengeful and becomes monstrous. We are still paying for how, following 9-11, our grief led us to invade Iraq. We wanted someone else to feel our pain and Saddam Hussein became our target. Unfortunately, we made the situation even worse since the invasion led to the rise of ISIS.

But that’s how blood feuds work, as Anglo-Saxon society well knew. Its poet created Grendel and his mother because it understood that, once warriors acted on their vengeful feelings, the violence never ended. Along with the monsters, Beowulf records a long list of vengeful vendettas.

Significantly, when Grendel’s Mother attacks she doesn’t even pick the right target: she slays Aeschere, not Beowulf, for the death of her son. Similarly the Republican presidential candidates, starting with Donald Trump, are targeting a number of innocent parties, according to Greg Sargent of The Washington Post:

[T]he GOP presidential candidates have responded by calling for a new military strategy against ISIS, with some of them also sounding the alarm about what the attacks portend for the American homeland. Ted Cruz has warned that “ISIS plans to bring these acts of terror to America,” and he has called for Muslim Syrian refugees to be barred from entering the United States. Jeb Bush has similarly said that our focus should be on Christian refugees. This drew a very sharp response today from President Obama, who decried the notion of a “religious test for which person who’s fleeing from a war-torn country is admitted,” adding that “we don’t have religious tests to our compassion.”

Meanwhile, Marco Rubio now claims that “we won’t be able to take more refugees,” and Ohio governor John Kasich is now calling for an end to their admission, too…However, to my knowledge, none of the other candidates has gone quite as far as Donald Trump has now done in suggesting we may need to close down some mosques in the United States.

Beowulf, under severe duress, doesn’t lose his head when confronted by Grendel’s Mother. He leaps into her dark waters and engages with the monster–which is another way of saying that he doesn’t allow himself to be overwhelmed by his emotions. He actually acts somewhat like Barack Obama, who has been taking his own resolute steps while chastising those that who would allow emotion to trump principle. Kevin Jones of Mother Jones sums up what the United States has been doing:

There’s a lot we can do to defeat ISIS, and most of it we’re already doing. Airstrikes? Check. Broad coalition? Check. Working with Arab allies? Check. Engage with Sunni tribal leaders? Check. Embed with the Iraqi military? Check. There’s more we could do, but often it’s contradictory. You want to arm the Kurds and create a partnership with the Iraqi government? Good luck. You want to defeat Assad and ISIS? You better pick one. You want to avoid a large American ground force and you want to win the war fast? Not gonna happen. Everyone needs to face reality: This is going to be a long effort, and there are no magic slogans that are going to win it. Unfortunately, they can make things worse.

Zack Beauchamp of Vox argues that the Paris attacks may actually be a sign that ISIS is becoming desperate from having lost 25% of its territory since last summer. Beauchamp believes that we are witnessing

a slow but steady process of chipping away at the group’s holdings, taking advantage of its structural weaknesses — too many strong enemies, vulnerability to airpower, no real ability to hide — to put it on the path toward defeat.

Unfortunately, Beauchamp predicts that, as it becomes more desperate, ISIS will focus more on soft targets like Paris. We are therefore playing into the hands of ISIS when we inflate them at the very point when they are on the defensive. When Rubio says that this is a “clash of civilizations,” he awards ISIS the status they want.

Few American presidents have been wiser than Franklin D. Roosevelt when he said that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” If we can’t stand up and be Beowulf strong, we will be consumed by the vengeful emotions of Grendel’s Mother.

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

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