A long, long walk on the dark side

For years, those who tolerated terrorism in Greece argued that the country did not have a problem with terrorism, that the issue was worse in name than in deed, and that the general public did not feel threatened by local urban guerrillas because the bombers and gunmen made the effort to single out symbolic targets that were not tied to the «common people.» Like the myth that November 17 was made up of supermen with powerful links in the state apparatus or foreign security services, this idea too has been discredited by the facts. As is inevitable when one plays with guns and bombs, passers-by were killed. Also, the argument played right into the terrorists’ hands by accepting their claim that those who died deserved to die, or that those whose property was damaged deserved to lose it (because they had a car with an American license plate, for example). Now, as the true story of Greek terrorism begins to be told, we see just how insidious the problem has been, spreading its poison through every level of our society and coloring Greece’s relations with other countries. It turns out that, like corruption, the effect of terrorism (this uncontrolled, unpredictable, invisible force) was everywhere. Corruption and terrorism were two sides of the same coin. Both were expressions of individual will imposed on society, in violation of institutions, and, by being widespread, created a sense that they were unconquerable. In both corruption and terrorism, the perpetrator’s justification is that he is not alone, that he is doing things that many others do. His refuge is that the rest of us shrug our shoulders and knowingly say that this is the way of the world, that nothing can be done to prevent it. The corrupt person and the terrorist (who often claims the corruption of others as his reason for being) act outside of institutions, though often exploiting their limitations, either to get rich by offering extra services to the public, or, in the case of terrorists, to hide behind the curbs imposed on their pursuers. The only way to fight them, then, is to treat manifestations of corruption and terrorism as individual crimes and to go after the criminals. For decades, terrorism was seen as something close to a natural force that could not be prevented. One simply had to hope for the best, relying on the good will of the gunmen. No one knew who was behind November 17, everyone was too scared to look too hard. It took one mistake by one of the gang’s members to show that this apparently collective phenomenon was made up of all too real (and often very pathetic) individual criminals. Even before the bomb blew up in Savvas Xeros’s hands in Piraeus last June 29, police had been close to their first breakthroughs because, finally, they were treating the terrorist attacks for what they were – crimes to be solved by good old police work combining the search for evidence and the use of intelligence. As the fortuitous bomb in Piraeus revealed, getting hold of an individual and not some phantom «organization» was enough to crack open the whole gang. This does not mean that corruption will be as simple, because arresting one venal individual will not necessarily lead to the rooting out of all corruption. But it will strip others of the inspiration and the excuse that «everyone does it.» It would also free the public of the demoralizing perception that everyone gets away with it. It is an indictment of how used to the poison our society has become that when Prime Minister Costas Simitis and the opposition clashed furiously on the issue in Parliament on Tuesday, only about 3 percent of the television-viewing public chose to follow the debate. And, of course, the other 97 percent were right – nothing came of it. The opposition did not name names but threw all the blame on the government. The government said it alone was not to blame and Simitis even took the absurd step of accusing the conservatives of using the same «anti-corruption» language that the dictatorship of 1967 to 1974 had used to justify its existence. Simitis, who has proven over the seven years that he has been in power that he is a moderate and reasonable man, must know that every extremist (whether it be dictator Giorgos Papadopoulos or the November 17 terrorists) usurps a popular issue in order to cover his illegitimate acts with the mantle of legitimacy. This does not mean that when a collective organization, such as an opposition party, says the same things that it is, therefore, extremist. So what Simitis did was to lump the conservatives with the extreme right to discredit them. This is collective responsibility taken to extremes. The point is that both the government and the opposition hide behind their generalizations. Neither undertakes the responsibility of uncovering at least one serious case of corruption, which would be a first step in the right direction in what is now a sea of unknowing. That sea that once covered terrorism has now parted, and this week we witnessed the arrest of four people accused of being leading members of the Revolutionary Popular Struggle (ELA). Although these arrests were almost anti-climactic, as the names of at least three of those arrested had been the subject of rumors for months, the development was monumental. Police now reckon that they have in their hands the leaders of the «mother of all Greek terrorist groups.» ELA carried out scores of attacks between 1975 and 1995 without any of its members being arrested. It started operating eight months before the far deadlier November 17 group. ELA claimed one murder, that of police officer Apostolos Vellios, who was killed when a remote-controlled bomb went off next to a police bus in the working-class suburb of Perissos in 1994. Most other ELA attacks were explosions at symbolic targets, starting with the burning of eight cars belonging to foreign diplomats in April 1975. The November 17 group, on the other hand, claimed 23 murders between December 1975 and June 2000. But this arithmetic does not do justice to the influence that ELA wielded. The problem of domestic terrorism was small. This prompted the gangs involved to try make themselves look like their numbers were far greater. November 17, though never opening itself to new recruits without handpicking them itself, repeatedly called on other groups to form and to emulate it. ELA had more of a «mass movement» approach, even producing and disseminating a pamphlet called «Antipliroforisi» (Disinformation) in its heyday. Even if it does not turn out (as police believe) that ELA was the reservoir of members of other groups, this organization provided the backdrop for the entire domestic terror scene. November 17 was able to present itself as a potent division of a broader «revolutionary» movement rather than what it actually was, an isolated group of misfits on a seemingly endless rampage. With the arrest of ELA’s four suspected leaders – Christos Tsigaridas on Tuesday, Costas Agapiou and Irini Athanassaki on Sunday and Angeletos Kanas on Saturday – we got a closer look at how the system worked. Kanas, Athanassaki and Agapiou denied the charge of being members of a criminal organization. Tsigaridas, a 64-year-old architect who fits the picture perfectly of the armchair revolutionary with his home in the wealthy suburb of Palaio Psychico, is believed to have been the gang’s mastermind and, police believe, a bigger fish than even the suspected leader of November 17, Alexandros Yotopoulos. Unlike Yotopoulos, who denies the charges against him, Tsigaridas admitted to the «political responsibility» for ELA’s attacks for the time that he said he was a member, between 1975 and 1990. Lawyers for all four suspects argue that they are being held illegally because they are charged with membership of a criminal organization which, until a new law was passed in 2002, was a misdemeanor with a five-year statute of limitations. Seeing as the gang has carried out no attacks since 1995, they argue, members cannot be held for trial. How ironic that Tsigaridas, who, along with others, wanted his anti-establishment obsession to be seen as part of a collective movement, should now be trying so hard to distance himself – as an individual – from the post-1990 ELA and, consequently, the murder of Vellios and any other victims who may be tied to the group. And, like November 17’s suspects, ELA’s four are also doing their best to exploit legal loopholes and the democratic system that they did so much to undermine with their self-proclaimed messianism. But the terrorists’ responsibility goes much further than the death, fear and sorrow that they sowed. They also gave cover to other monsters that grew in their shadow. Apart from the fact that this sunny country was plagued for decades by a reputation of allowing criminals to get away with murder, the climate of fear also allowed lucrative protection rackets to operate, in which some journalists and publishers claimed that they could get rich people (and even bishops) off November 17’s hit list if paid for their pains. Only after November 17’s collapse did victims free themselves of fear and begin testifying in the case. The extreme left-wing terrorists, with their high ideals, in other words, provided (most probably unwittingly) the perfect threat for blackmailers. Like other forms of crime and corruption, great and small, terror and extortion fed off each other and inspired a conspiracy of silence. A silence so deep that once we thought it hid few horrors. When, one by one, we root them out, we will be cleansed collectively and see our problems in their true light.