Pouring poison over the ashes

Pouring poison over the ashes

For the first time in its more than four years of power, the government seems at a loss. Its magical gift of communication, which turned everything into gold, appears to have perished, along with thousands of hectares of forest, dozens of houses and two dozen people.

Is the fatigue from the first four years of power plus the laborious (for no reason, as it turned out) pre-election campaign to blame? Is it arrogance caused by the victorious 41% the ruling party achieved in the elections? Is it a Greek version of the mentality expressed by Donald Trump in his infamous statement: “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and wouldn’t lose any voters”?

Whatever the cause, this difficult August saw not only the breakdown of the country’s civil protection mechanisms – whose shambolic state we were already aware of – but also of the government’s successful communication strategy, which is something we did not expect.

Within the past week, we heard every possible scenario about the causes of the devastating wildfires: From the claim that the climate crisis “came earlier than expected,” as New Democracy lawmaker Sofia Voultepsi said on television, to the claim that there were “15 parallel (!) outbreaks in [the forest of] Dadia,” by State Minister Akis Skertsos; and from the statement that some of the fires were cause by Roma scrap collectors burning cables, to laying the blame on irregular migrants.

At the same time, the Hellenic Police said one thing about the wildfires, the Fire Department said another, while the ministers said something else. 

All that is left of the government’s rhetoric is the oft-formulated claim that “someone, somewhere, someday will be punished for what the country is going through.” And it’s going through a lot.

We have many dead people, as we did in the 2018 wildfire in Mati. We have the destruction of a UNESCO World Heritage Site (the Monastery of Osios Loukas), as we did in 2007 when the Hill of Kronos was totally burnt in a blaze – with the then culture minister, Giorgos Voulgarakis, claiming that the fire had merely “burned some trees around the site.” We have the second largest expanse of scorched earth, with 120,000 hectares burned to ashes so far, compared to 270,000 burned in 2007 as a whole.

After all this, the government decided to go with the classic populist rote. Instead of suggesting solutions, it is looking for culprits to blame. And those “culprits,” of course, are found among the groups that constitute the usual “enemies” of the nation; long ago they were the land grabbers, then they became the Turks, then some “agents” of unknown national identity who wanted to undermine former conservative premier Costas Karamanlis (after the deadly 2007 wildfires), and now they are the irregular migrants, the “illegals,” as we read in an eight-column headline of an Athenian newspaper.

Of course, the human imagination has a tendency to run wild; don’t forget those fellow citizens who “discovered” microchips in the Covid vaccines and now in the new identity cards. Fighting such beliefs is extremely difficult, but it is the duty of every government, because when irrationality flares up in a society (any irrationality, in any society) it has unpredictable and extremely toxic results.

What is even more startling, is that the government has not only failed to debunk the conspiracy theorists before they pour their poison into society, it is actually encouraging them, for the sake of fleeting political gains. It doesn’t matter if everyone, including the mayor of Alexandroupoli, confirmed that the massive wildfire in the border region of Evros was started by lightning.

A few days later, in fact, the government, unable to manage the political cost of a disaster of this magnitude, leaked “information” about investigations being carried out by the National Intelligence Service. According to a report in the local newspaper Eleftheri Thraki, meanwhile, “the authorities see an organized plan by arsonists, with the aim of burning down the country (…) with 15 fires breaking out in the corridors used by illegal migrants in Dadia.”

Such “suspicions” then started being expressed by officials who “saw” the fires in areas that are popular migrant trails, while Skertsos spoke about the fires having been lit in “parallel” lines. So, as if “the stroke of bad luck” (a phrase immortalized by former regional governor Rena Dourou to describe the incompetence of state services during the deadly wildfires in East Attica in 2018) wasn’t enough, the government decided to pour poison over the ashes of the forest, where various vigilantes thrive, such as the man who “collected” “pieces” – as he described the migrants he had imprisoned in his trailer – in long-suffering Evros. 

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