Athens Mayor Giorgos Kaminis’s concern for the fate of bronze busts and other statuary in public spaces in Greece’s capital is understandable; the past few years have shown that they are at the mercy of thieves and vandals. What is not understandable is that we have reached the point where the mayor is forced to consider hiding artworks in order to protect them, as our predecessors did before the German occupation, as Syrian and Iraqi officials did before the march of the jihadis. Even if the comparison seems excessive, the essence of the matter is that our city – the quality of our daily life – is stumbling from one defeat to the next.
We are experiencing a crisis that predates the economic one. It is a crisis of culture, an inability to evaluate the dangers around us, to undertake evasive action, to protect what our society has achieved. When we hide our statues, when we change bus routes to avoid ambushes by self-styled anarchists, when we tolerate vandalism in every public space (all the lights in parks are broken methodically), when drivers treat the rules of the road as if this is a matter of choice, will we escape the day when we are too scared to leave our homes? Attacks on public spaces – and, especially, tolerance of this – are an attack on each member of society. Every country has small groups or individuals who would like to impose their will on the rest, but seldom do we see, as we do in Greece, the whole of society appear so unwilling to fulfill its obligation to protect all its members.
The state’s tolerance and incompetence in the face of crimes against public spaces make each of us wonder how we will protect ourselves. Will we run or will we fight? In the state’s absence, each of us is forced to improvise in the face of others’ arbitrary actions. We are obliged to face the basic question of the jungle – fight or flight? Each person’s character will decide how he or she will act – on the basis of circumstances, choice and possible outcomes. From the state, however, we should demand unwavering determination in its obligation to provide security and social benefits to all.
For years, violent protests and antisocial behavior by extremist groups were considered almost charming by a sizable part of the population, as if this were an acceptable – if a little excessive – exercise of youthful revolt. But when there is no real enemy and no specific framework of behavior to contain such aggression, it turns against the social whole. When the state does not react, either the whole will be poisoned or it will break up into clashing groups, with even more disastrous results.
The mayor’s confession of despair clears the issue, forcing us all to answer a specific question? Do we accept the damage to our public space and private life because we are afraid to fight? Or do we understand, at last, that it is time for us all to behave as adults and demand that our state do the same?