The Parable of the Weed

Attacking terrorism at its roots.

by Victor Davis Hanson

National Review Online

My grandfather, a lifelong viticulturalist, used to sigh that the great plague of his life — besides banks, shippers, and packers — was johnsongrass (holcus halepensis). It is a perennial noxious weed, purportedly introduced into California as a range grass before it was found to be unsuitable for cattle and about everything else. Johnsongrass grows on the berms of the vineyard, where it cannot be reached by the disk or by any other farm implement in the row; indeed, while it can exist in barren fields, it prefers the culture of the vineyard, where it can much more readily find an easy livelihood through predation — and safety by proximity to civilized hosts.

Unlike the cultured vine that produces fresh grapes, wine, and raisins, johnsongrass creates nothing of any value: The weed’s sole purpose seems to be perpetuating its own species and drawing off nourishment from cultivated vines and trees that can scarcely survive on their own. How do you fight an enemy that draws its nourishment from the very landscape it seeks to destroy?

Unchecked, the aggressive johnsongrass can grow almost six feet high. Its rhizomes sink a foot below the surface and spread laterally in a four- or five-foot radius. One never knows exactly how far or to what degree they have permeated the soil, until four or five new stalks suddenly burst forth. And even these rapacious, visible plants are still less impressive than their ever-expanding but hidden network of roots below. Because it need not produce edible fruit, the weed’s entire energy is devoted simply to its own voracious existence. How do you fight an enemy that is growing unnoticed in your very midst?

Traditional cultivation and other methods of eradication are of no use. It is impossible to pull out the weed by hand — its sharp blades simply break off, as the razor-like edges cut into one’s fingers. Nor can johnsongrass be dug out — the cells of the root-like nodules only separate and scatter. Indeed, cutting and digging seem almost to stimulate rather than weaken the pest, as the remnants of cut roots will spread new colonies rather than die. In the late spring when the grass seeds out, the wind scatters its brood, spreading thousands of potential new weeds well beyond its original host. “Let one stalk go,” my grandfather used to sigh, “and in a year or two, dozens more will take over the entire row.”How do you fight an enemy that is multifaceted in its reproduction and cannot be eradicated by normal measures?

Indeed, entire vineyards used to be swallowed by johnsongrass. In those lost fields, the weeds could reach a height taller than the vines as the grass sucked out all the water and nitrogen from the beleaguered host vineyard, diminishing grape production by as much as a third and making harvest almost unworkable. Sometimes it was impossible to distinguish the host vine from the rogue weed, as the grass grew right up through the trellises and wires — weed and vine so intertwined you would almost have to destroy both to get at the pest. Desperate farmers who had let their vineyards grow rank had no choice but to continue to water and fertilize as before, in hopes that the strangled vines could at least draw off some nutrients from their rapacious intruders. Their lax efforts only made the problem worse for others, as the wind easily blew their mess over to neighbors’ clean vineyards. How do you fight an enemy that some in desperation have simply let thrive and allowed to harm others?

In the 1950s, the farm adviser’s operative advice was “control.” We farmers were to dig out the weed four or five times a season — sometimes spraying diesel or weed oil that would burn it down to the ground, on other occasions employing ineffective chemicals to sicken, but never to kill, the pest. I remember one stand of johnsongrass that seemed to be decades old, its roots an enormous ball that entirely surrounded, and had grown inside, the vine itself.How do you fight an enemy that has carved out enclaves of immunity?

But a funny thing happened to johnsongrass. Plant pathologists and chemists came up with a new, bold strategy of going after the roots — not just the visible plant itself. If, in the past, digging and cutting had failed, if oils had burned back the leaves only, and if chemicals like parquat and amitrole had merely sickened the stalks, the solution was to be found in attacking the rhizomes themselves, deep beneath the soil and apparently safe.

So just about the time my grandfather died at 86, a wondrous new chemical, “Roundup,” was introduced, a systematic salt compound that proved at last fatal to the weed. It was sprayed on the leaf and absorbed by the plant, and then traveled into the roots, where it literally blew apart the entire machinery of the pest — killing as insidiously and stealthily as the weed itself had spread. The use of Roundup and its later descendants meant that within a few years, johnsongrass essentially disappeared from most well-kept vineyards. Once the roots had collapsed, the weed’s entire base of operations vanished: Without roots, the stalk did not sprout; without the stalk, there were no leaves or seeds; without seeds new weeds could not germinate. We at first thought the original price of Roundup was astronomical ($100/gallon, in the early 1970s) — but soon learned that it was cheap in the long run, since it saved hours of digging, spraying, and cutting.

We have done an excellent job cutting back the stalks of terrorism in Afghanistan and elsewhere, for a time preventing the leaves from seeding out and spreading the plague of suicide-murdering and worse. And we are also told that our efforts to intercept terrorists on planes and ships have been successful, as other nations’ police have rounded up hundreds of operatives.

But such isolated successes will never eradicate the danger until we eliminate the roots entirely. And that more difficult task can only be accomplished by changing the landscape of the Middle East, in which the rhizomes of terrorism grow deep. It is no accident that just as we were prepared to go beyond Afghanistan, other terrorist weeds with al Qaeda roots suddenly began suicide-murdering, bombing, and assassinating in the Middle East, Kashmir, and Pakistan, diverting our attention to peripheral wars and away from our main efforts to eradicate terrorists and their host regimes.

We should envision the world as divided into quadrants that either support or oppose al Qaeda and its brood. America and Europe, though belatedly, have now awoken to the danger, and are moving to uproot terrorism. India, with one-sixth of the planet’s population, is actively at war with Islamic fundamentalism. China, for all its triangulation, is deathly afraid of terror as well. In the last decade, the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe — as former terrorist states themselves — were the world’s great supporters of guerrillas and freelance killers. No longer; they too are actively involved in the chase. So the world has shrunk and — except for the Islamic Middle East — is mostly hostile to the formation of terrorist cells. The last roots are the states — like Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Libya — that periodically send out new stalks among their neighbors.

The choice, then, is ours. We can chronically trim, dig, and cut back — preventing the terrorists from sprouting, seeding out, and spreading. Or, as with embracing the costly but systematic Roundup, we can decide now to blow apart its very roots, which are intertwined and so deeply entrenched in the very soil of the Middle East. Our efforts need not be solely military, but may be political and idealistic as well: working for democratic reform in the Gulf; explaining to the Syrians, Libyans, and Iranians that we consider them all captive peoples, who, like Eastern Europeans, suffer under the yoke of tyrannies and thus are deserving of our support for democratic revolution. We should seek out more liberal members of the Saudi royal family and explain to them that democratic reform alone can now prevent the collapse of their entire regime.

The latter systematic choice in the short-term — the ending of Saddam Hussein; ultimatums to Syria and Iran to cease their succor to Hezbollah, Hamas, and Islamic Jihad, or else; a reckoning with the terrorist enclaves in Lebanon; a gradual dissolution of alliances with the autocracies of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Jordan; subsidies to democratic reformers throughout the Middle East — is both unorthodox, frightening, and easily caricatured. But, in the long term, it offers the only hope of destroying weeds like al Qaeda for good. Anything less and we are simply pruning back a perennial pest.

©2002 Victor Davis Hanson

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