Circle of fire

The trial of 19 suspected members of the November 17 terrorist group which begins on Monday will be a severe test of how our society deals with very serious issues. It could be one of those moments when – as after a war – a nation redefines itself. It is not clear whether this will lead to catharsis, to things being seen for what they are so that we can judge the suspects, their acts and the environment that nurtured them, or whether the trial will serve only to confirm prejudices and cloud the judgment with which we travel through these momentous times. Unfortunately, the signs that have appeared since November 17 began to unravel last summer are that the dividing lines that slash across Greek society in every direction will remain unchanged. If justice is not seen to be done, the trial of suspected members of the group that tried to hijack Greece’s domestic agenda and foreign policy for a quarter of a century might lead only to more sound and fury and, in the end, come to signify only how morally impoverished and intellectually orphaned Greece remains. Judging by the lack of remorse shown by principal defendants and their very vocal supporters, and the very insecure way in which the government has tried to prepare for the trial (with a total ban on television coverage being succeeded, in the face of TV channels’ outcry, by a «let’s see» attitude), it is highly likely that the three judges will turn out to be the ones on trial in the court of those who make sure their opinions are heard – either through talk shows and newspaper analyses or by holding demonstrations. Whether or not these people form a large part of the population (they do not) is moot. Their opinions more often than not set the tone of the debate, their demonstrations amplify what would otherwise be marginal opinions. And this could be the central issue of the trial. Some defendants – among those who have confessed to being members of November 17 – will probably try to do what the group did through its 27-year history and 23 murders. They will claim that the court has no jurisdiction over them because their crimes were political and, anyhow, their victims deserved their fate. The widespread anti-Americanism that has existed since the fall of the military dictatorship in 1974 has served as the prism through which too many Greeks have looked at the world for far too long. And this will play a part here as well. America, as Greece’s dominant ally since the late 1940s and the civil war, has its fair share of responsibility for what Greece is. But that responsibility concerns both the good and the bad, and the Greeks should not rule out their own responsibility for what they have been through and what they are. Unfortunately, with the United States now rushing headlong into war, in a way which brooks no criticism but divides the world into «us» and «them,» anti-Americanism is reaching heady new highs as it brings together the traditional «anti-imperialist» forces on the left with anti-globalization activists and the extreme right – even though the populist religious leaders have been surprisingly quiet this time. This sense of sanctimonious outrage is precisely what November 17 tried to both inspire and and use as its justification in its shrill proclamations attempting to explain the reasons for its murders. This false logic, the cornerstone of the vast majority of arguments in public debate, will probably dominate the trial’s proceedings. The hardened killers, namely chief hit men Dimitris Koufodinas and Savvas Xeros, who have already proudly claimed «political responsibility» for November 17’s actions, will most probably argue that their actions were justified because those of the USA were worse. This line of thinking is not a solely Greek trait, but the claim that something done by someone else is so bad that it justifies the wrongs that we do is perhaps nowhere else allowed without it being shot down. This implies that, aside from the backdrop of November 17’s ostensible war on «imperialism» and «capitalism,» the trial will probably be used to vilify the memory of the gang’s victims. This will be most painful for the families of the victims – made doubly painful by the fact that the defendants will have a loud chorus of supporters proclaiming their innocence without denying their actions. This will be another test for our society – how the words and actions of people who might outrage the relatives of victims and the public will be dealt with. So far, we have seen that our news media have a morbid fixation with such behavior, with populists on both sides of the fence making the most of it. There is no suggestion that this will be avoided this time if they can help it. Which brings us to the issue of news coverage of the trial. Here again, some of us are losing our sense of perspective. The journalists’ union, probably at the bidding of the broadcast media rather than the press, is considering protests (with talk even of a boycott of the trial) to demand live television and radio coverage. The Communist Party and other leftist groups also want the broadest coverage. The government, on the other hand, having seen the grandstanding of defense lawyers and know-all journalists, wants to prevent the trial from turning into what it calls «television cannibalism.» The furious discussion is taking place as if 120 journalists have not been accredited to be in the courtroom, with another 200 in an adjacent hall watching the trial on closed-circuit television. If the government does not cave in, the trial will not be presented live on television. Journalists with their pens and notebooks – if they are worth their salaries – will be able to present every detail of the trial to their readers, the way countless witnesses have recounted trials since antiquity. But the debate over the way the trial is covered reveals another fault in our society. Those who demand television coverage coincide to a great degree with those who declare that this will be a show trial. They claim that the trial itself is part of a cover-up, that the truth of November 17 has not been revealed. The Communist Party and others (from across the political spectrum), for example, have always claimed that November 17 was the product of security services, namely the CIA, and not a cancerous offshoot of the tree of extreme left conspiratorial groupuscules. But one of the great ironies of the November 17 case is that Greece had been in such awe of the gang, like a rabbit caught in the twin headlights of police incompetence and the myth of the group’s infallibility, that the very fact that they are being tried in the light of day makes the suspects look so much less than the myth surrounding them. One is tempted to believe that this ragtag bunch which includes a couple of beekeepers, a dilettante mathematician suspected of being the mastermind, an icon painter, a primary school teacher, an instrument maker, a bus driver, a beer factory worker, and so on, are not significant members of November 17. From its first murder, in late 1975, to its last, in June 2000, the group had managed to kill almost at will, its gunmen disappearing as if invisible. So the trial will also be a way of seeing if the myth will unravel under the court’s questioning or whether enough defendants will refuse to answer questions, thus creating a cloud of uncertainty as to their own actions and those of other, perhaps unknown, operatives. Therefore, the only salvation for a nation that needs to know the truth will be the testimony of forensics experts. Because in a country where we expect people to lie in court, only the cold scalpel of science will be able to cut through the suspects’ lies and the public myths. And this will prove, too, that beyond the cloud of «political motives,» what the terrorists did was kill, maim and rob without mercy. These are things that can be measured and proven, beyond any trial’s noise, confusion and expediency. It is a divine irony that the trial will be held in the same courtroom in Korydallos Prison women’s wing in which the leaders of the 1967-74 junta were tried in 1975. That is the year in which November 17 and another terrorist gang, the Revolutionary Popular Struggle (ELA) began operating, ostensibly in reaction to the defunct junta. But the extreme right-wing dictators and the extreme left-wing terrorists had something else in common. They were both enemies of democracy, a democracy that does its best to grant people like them fair trials. This trial, then, will test our democracy. It will test our judiciary. It will test the tolerance of our society to hear outrageous things and its will to pursue the truth and overcome the woolly thinking that allowed terrorists to think they could justify their acts. This is the circle of fire through which an old dog must jump.

Subscribe to our Newsletters

Enter your information below to receive our weekly newsletters with the latest insights, opinion pieces and current events straight to your inbox.

By signing up you are agreeing to our Terms of Service and Privacy Policy.