Antiquity's historians noticed the durability of evil. The ancient Greeks would have smiled at the illusion of 20th century observers describing World War I as "the war to end all wars" or the Soviet Empire's collapse as "the end of history."
Greek mythology represented evil as Hydra, the nine-headed monster, a renewable resource if there ever was one. No sooner did Heracles cut off one of its heads, the monster grew another two.
The hero solved the problem by calling on his nephew, Iolaus, to cauterize the neck-stump with a firebrand. In the legend, it worked like a charm. In real life, the method has proved less reliable. In our times Heracles can still cut off Hydra's head -- maybe, with luck -- but can't stop it from growing new ones.
No sooner did Hydra's hideous Hitler- and Mussolini-heads roll at the end of the Second World War, than out popped its Stalin, Mao, Kim Il-Sung, Fidel Castro, Ho Chi Minh and Pol Pot heads to produce the Cold War, Korea, Vietnam, the Cuban Missile Crisis and the killing fields of Cambodia. Heracles went snicker-snack and ugly heads flew off again, but now the monster's neck sprouted Ruhollah Khomeini, Saddam Hussein, Kim Jong-il, Osama bin Laden, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his nuclear ayatollahs. Hijackers, suicide-bombers, two Gulf Wars, 9/11 and Afghanistan followed.
Last month some of Heracles' latter-day nephews gathered at a conference in Norway. The roster of participants at the Oslo Freedom Forum read like a veritable Who's Who of contemporary Hydra-hunting and neck-stump cauterizing Iolauses. They included Elie Wiesel, the scourge of Nazis old as well as neo; Vladimir Bukovsky, who first exposed the Soviets' use of psychiatry to suppress dissent; Armando Valladares, the poet who spent decades imprisoned in Castro's island Gulag (where Canada's naïfs like to vacation) and Paiden Gyatso, the Tibetan Buddhist monk who spent 33 years in the labour camps of Mao and his disciples.
The intrepid Harry Wu was there, the dissenter who after 19 years in re-education camps risked returning to China to expose, among other things, Beijing's use of executed prisoners for organ transplants. Kang Choi-Hwan, a child-inmate in North Korea's Yodok concentration camp -- one of very few to escape the Kim dynasty's grip -- also attended. So did Leyla Zana, a politician imprisoned in Turkey for daring to speak Kurdish after her election in parliament.
Given that using an ethnic minority's language is a punishable offense in Turkey, the Islamic world's most Westernized democracy, if Jews became a minority in a post-Zionist Israel, would anyone fancy a Jewish parliamentarian's chances trying to speak Hebrew?
Yelena Bonner didn't. In her keynote address, the widow of Andrei Sakharov, scientist and foremost cauterizer of Stalin's neck-stump, made no reference to Greek mythology. She only noted that the "incredible changes" since the fall of the Berlin Wall haven't necessarily improved the world.
Quite the opposite: "The world has become more alarming, more unpredictable and more fragile."
The 86-year-old widow of the nuclear physicist who played a pivotal role in boosting the Kremlin's military bang before reducing its moral bang to zero, mused about how the ostensible decapitation of race-or class-based tyrannies actually brought the world closer to their monstrous visions.
"At first, anger and horror was provoked by the terrorists who knocked down the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center and by their accomplices in London, Madrid and other cities," Bonner recalled. "Later, [President George W.] Bush was blamed for everything, and as always, the Jews -- that is, Israel."
Two states for two people sounded good, until one looked at the numbers and the fine print on refugees, the scientist's widow told the hometown of the stillborn Oslo Accords. The population of Israel is about 7.5 million, of whom 5.4 million are Jews and 1.5 million Israeli Arabs. A two-state solution, in which the Palestinian state permits no Jewish settlements but the Jewish state offers the right of return to more than 4.5 million Palestinians classified as refugees, adds up to a Palestinian state cleansed of Jews neighbouring a nominal Israel in which Arabs outnumber Jews substantially.
"The result is strange and terrifying," said Bonner, "because Israel will be essentially destroyed ... A judenfrei (Jew-free) Holy Land -- the dream of Adolf Hitler come true at last."
Hitler's term was actually judenrein, but either way it's ethnic cleansing. Expelling people from their homes, a crime against humanity in the Balkans, is now U.S. policy in the Middle East. "The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements," said President Obama last week in Cairo. Will the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) that bombed Serbia for expelling Bosnian and Albanian Muslims from disputed territories in the former Yugoslavia, bomb Israel for not expelling Jewish settlers from disputed territories in the former Palestinian Mandate? Far-fetched, yes; impossible, no.
Oslo is quiet. Iolaus' heirs have flown home. When Heracles meets Hydra next, it may be at a war crimes trial in The Hague. Perhaps the hero will be on the bench and the monster in the dock, but it could be the other way around.