The Keratea model

By Alexis Papachelas

If there is one thing that we learned from the 2008 riots in Athens (after a teenager was shot and killed by a police bullet in the central district of Exarchia) it is that there cannot be different levels of lawlessness. From the moment that the central authorities suggest that ?everything is permitted,? it?s all downhill from there.

In December 2008, a conservative minister?s comments about the police force?s ?passive stance? set off an orgy of violence and looting. It was like someone had said, ?Let the party begin!?

That is more or less what has happened in Keratea, east of Athens, where locals are reacting to government plans to build a landfill in the area. Some political brainiacs thought that putting up with some degree of lawbreaking would serve as a safety valve for the pent-up anger.

In doing so, they let residents set up roadblocks on the main highway connecting the capital to the coastal town of Lavrio and they took no action when protesters set fire to police vehicles.

Before they knew it, our politicians were faced with an all-out rebellion.

A large chunk of the media poured oil onto the flames by arguing (first) that the protester is always right and (second) that the road must be cleared from the rubble but without the use of police force. That of course led to more violence. As the head of the Greek police said, ?We are not the Turkish military police; that?s as far as we can go.?

We should not forget, of course, the fear that ?someone might get killed.? Fear paralyzed the state in 2008, and now the same thing is happening again. But when you allow things to slowly arrive at a deadlock, then there is always the risk of casualties, even when all you are trying to achieve is to clear a road or protect public property.

There would be no such danger if the police and the prosecutors had done their jobs when the road was first closed or when the first Molotov cocktails were thrown. It is dangerous to think that letting people vent their anger is the best way to calm things down. Violence does not just fade away, it is contagious.

Who can forget the hair-raising images of schoolchildren hurling stones at police stations in December 2008? For them it was normal to mimic their elders, especially given the absence of any punishment.

Our society is dogged by a crisis of values, unemployment, lack of leadership and more vices. Under the circumstances, it would be easy for everything to spin out of control.

If the Keratea model becomes accepted as a method of protesting, then the country will enter a very disquieting phase -- a phase where the risk of civil strife should not be ridiculed as a fatalist forecast. After all, some people out there would really like to see Athens turn into a big Keratea.

The point is that when you allow things to get out of control, there is only a limited number of options you have to remedy the situation: Either the state has to back down, which means humiliation for both the law and our democracy, or you need a police state to enforce law and order.

It seems that if things were to get worse, if we were to have more Kerateas, then we should brace for tough law enforcement, and the people will be the first to ask for it.

That would be really sad for our democracy. But responsibility for that would lie with our cowardly, inept politicians who imagined that politics is all about empty speeches and handing out political favors -- not tough decisions that carry a political cost.