The tragic dimension in the case of the four young bank robbers armed with Kalashnikovs and revolutionary rage is that they have thrown away their youth in an outburst of vengeance against a society which they consider unjust, seduced by the collective fantasy of the past decades that political conditions justify violence. They have become entangled in a story which goes beyond what they can imagine; they will pay the price with their lives, with years behind bars. Those who led them astray, who armed them, will live free – free to keep cultivating myths about the need to take up arms against a rotten society. Other youngsters will follow.
Having grown up in the years long after the fall of the dictatorship in 1974, in an age of prosperity and intellectual laxity, where everyone could believe that he starred in an adventure of his own choosing (with everyone else an extra), the youngsters who were arrested last week after robbing a bank in Kozani suddenly find themselves up against the real world – a world where prisoners are beaten up, where prisons are terrible, where the judicial system is chaotic and the “people” whom they want to lead to revolution have more mundane things on their mind. The young revolutionary robbers were acting out their roles in a world of their own, drunk on the power of guns and the conspirator’s mystery, fired up with tales of urban guerrillas from other times, other places. They will endure the consequences in the real world.
The laws of nature, the laws of society – justly or unjustly, sooner or later – find ways to impose themselves, to crush those who violate them. We in Greece never seem to learn this; that is why we have to live with the consequences, over and over. The same applies when we borrow without limits, ignoring the lessons of the past that this will lead to bankruptcy, deprivation and despair; the same applies in a society that has no differentiation between roles and modes of behavior, where anything goes and everything is confused, where children can play at rebellion without considering the consequences. The result is tragic when delusions of grandeur and youthful arrogance collide with reality, whether this comes in the form of a traffic accident, or illness, or prison. In our country it is even more tragic, because at the moment of impact we see just how great the problems in our institutions and our civilization are: We see that, 32 years after Greece’s accession to the European Union, we still do not treat detainees in a civilized way; we see that 39 years after the fall of the dictatorship, some are still playing at bringing it down while others are trying to resurrect it.
Democracy is undermined both by those who want to influence it with violence (from either extreme) and by those who violate their oaths, who do not carry out their duty, who do not serve the citizens and the state but abuse their position for their own gain – to grow rich and powerful. Our state’s chronic inability to convince citizens that it is effective and just produces two dangerous phenomena which feed off each other – a general sense of injustice that provokes anger, and state incompetence that encourages the rise of groups which oppose the state and usurp its functions, such as the monopoly on force, such as the drawing up of immigration policy.
In the years after the dictatorship, Greece managed to combine prosperity and unprecedented social stability with the loosening of state structures and the triumph of a mentality that if you did not take care of yourself (through any means), no one else would. At the same time, respect for the state had been undermined by its past authoritarianism; this, along with the breakdown of hierarchies, accountability and evaluation in the public sector led to the rule of mediocrity, to widespread illegality, and to arbitrary actions. In this climate, the “avengers” of the November 17 group (which contrived to marry extreme left-wing politics with nationalism) became role models for many youngsters; its unseen operatives were seen as akin to high priests of a hard religion that was coming to sweep away the rotten system, a regime based on capitalism and foreign dependence.
November 17 first appeared in 1975 and was dismantled in 2003. Its members were held up to the light, they were judged and imprisoned. It is difficult to estimate what the group achieved, other than to make Greeks get used to living with terrorism. And it sowed the seeds of violent rage. For several of its members, November 17 was a career – they lived off it for years and they lived well. The youngsters who were arrested last week are aged between 20 and 24. They did not get a chance to live. Now they are behind bars. What did they get out of this? Who armed them? Who sent them into the labyrinth where they would be destroyed?