Our planet spins toward war in the Middle East, the latest effort to solve the Cyprus problem has collapsed and the prime minister of Serbia has been assassinated, threatening the fragile Balkans with even greater fragility. And yet much of public opinion in Greece has been concerned this week with whether the crimes of the November 17 gang are political and, consequently, whether the court trying suspected members is the right one. If the crimes were «political,» as the defendants claim, then the three-member appeals court judges would not be competent and the trial would have to be heard by a combination of three judges and four jurors. All seven on the mixed court have an equal vote, which has often resulted in acquittals in high-profile trials (including those of terrorism suspects) in which the jurors outvoted the judges. The anti-terrorism law passed in 2001 was intended precisely to forestall a repeat of such acquittals, on the understanding that jurors are more vulnerable to being pressured or misled. Consequently, it was to be expected that the November 17 suspects would fight to be tried by a court including jurors. Furthermore, having their actions judged «political» would act as a kind of vindication of the group’s 27 years of murder and robbery. But the court ruled yesterday that November 17’s crimes were not political. Presiding judge Michalis Margaritis noted that the Constitution and relevant laws did not define what a political crime is, leaving it to the courts to define it. «The court therefore accepts that a political crime is that which is aimed directly against the current political system and tends to overthrow or change the nature of the establishment which exists in accordance with that system,» Margaritis said. «Any other crime which does not have this nature does not exist in the sense of a political crime, even if it was committed by the perpetrator because of his beliefs or principles or with the aim of achieving such a purpose,» he added. «And so, in this case, the court is led to rule that this is not a political crime as it is described in the indictment.» He listed the crimes of which the suspects are accused, as murder, robbery, possessing explosives and firearms, and so on. And that is that, for now – until the defendants appeal against whatever sentences are handed down. And the passion with which this argument has been taken up in Greece indicates that the suspects’ claims of being driven by their political beliefs still carries some attraction as an intellectual exercise. Because the fact is that November 17 killed 23 people, maimed many others and carried out major robberies. Their intentions might have been political at times – and in varying degrees among different members – but the acts are facts. Also, they did not come anywhere close to overturning the country’s political system and this must have been obvious to them many years ago – even when the ostensible socialist paradise of the Soviet bloc disintegrated. Yet still November 17 carried on, with murders and robberies, as if it had a franchise and a brand name that had to be protected and maintained because, by now, the group had become a business and its senior members were living comfortably off their crimes. So, according to the Greek judicial system, November 17 is a criminal organization because, whatever its motives might have been, it failed to overturn the political system. (If Koufodinas and Co. had managed to lead a revolution, it would be nice to know what kind of trials they would have had in store for the rest of us.) The discussion on «political crime» leads one down other avenues these days, although other societies that are not so obsessed with providing alibis for every political deviation would probably focus on the crime and its punishment and not split hairs on the perpetrators’ intentions and their political results as we do. In Greece we are still obsessed with romanticizing violent opposition to authority, to the extent of confusing those who would protect democracy with those who would destroy it. The mysterious tolerance by some and apathy from most regarding November 17 and other violent forms of «political» expression stemmed largely from an endless reaction to the extreme-right military dictatorship of 1967-74 and the travails of the Left after its defeat in the civil war of 1946-49. It was as if the right-wing authoritarianism of the past (supported by an America which more often than not tried to soften the nature of the Greek regime) somehow justified a violent extreme-left group in an otherwise flowering democracy. This trait is nothing new. Thucydides, in one of his unbelievably apt dissections of his compatriots, tells the story of two sixth-century Athenian lovers, Harmodius and Aristogeiton, who were posthumously celebrated as «tyrannicides.» They were famous for murdering a popular tyrant’s brother after the latter attempted to seduce Harmodius away from Aristogeiton. «I shall relate the story at some length to show that the Athenians are no more accurate than others in their accounts of their own tyrants and the facts of their own history,» Thucydides wrote. To no avail, the two assassins (who may well have been described as terrorists today) were celebrated with a statue and hymn. A crime of passion became a supreme political act. The Athenians, then and now, are no more susceptible than others in choosing myth over reality. But we can also look at the great events of this week in light of questions raised over what constitutes a «political crime.» In a way, all crime is political: The criminal may claim that society forced him to act the way he did; crime prompts reaction by the State, in a way that affects everyone – by enforcing stricter laws or by cracking down on immigrants, for example. That’s politics. Then there is the primal political act, the murder of an individual whose office places him in a position to affect the fate of his society. The most devastating expression of this was the assassination of Serb Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic on Wednesday. With no clear successor in sight, with Serbia struggling to right itself after more than a decade of wars and confusion, while trying to crack down on organized crime and draw closer to the EU, Djindjic’s murder could have colossal consequences for the Balkans in a way that November 17 could never affect Greece. If it turns out – as is widely suspected – that Djindjic was killed by an organized crime racket, would that make the gunmen and those who put them up to the murder «political» operatives? Would their persecution be the result of their political ideas? The problem that allows such organizations to flourish is political, the crime itself is a crime. Then we have the mother of political events – war – and its complications. The American president, George W. Bush, has made it plain that he wants the president of Iraq, Saddam Hussein, to leave office or be removed. Because Saddam is said to be stalling in meeting the UN demand to give up his weapons of mass destruction, the US, Britain and Spain are preparing to invade Iraq. What would be a lot cheaper in Iraqi and coalition force lives, in time and in money would be to kill Saddam, of course. But that would be illegal. So, to «liberate Iraq,» the US and British forces will invade it. Because for centuries, from the time of the saints Augustine (fourth and fifth century) and Aquinas (13th century), the Christians have had rules for what constitutes a just war and how it should be conducted. So war is not always illegal. (Muslims have their own rules.) So, the political act of killing another nation’s leader is taboo, whereas killing great numbers of his subjects in order to get to him can be justified. Our world obviously still needs to work on some definitions of what is right and what is wrong. But even so, the crime is often in the eye of the beholder. Take the case of Haralambos Dousemetzis, for example. The 25-year-old Greek was arrested on Feb. 25 and held secretly in northern England before being booked on terrorism-linked charges. It appears he is a Nov17 sympathizer. «I think anyone would easily call this reaction excessive,» government spokesman Christos Protopappas said of the detention. «It seems, and there is no proof to the contrary, that the Greek citizen did nothing at all. He had certain opinions… and behavior which have landed him in prison for a very long time.» In Greece, Dousemetzis could have been a witness for the defense. In England he needs defending. That is a political crime, by any definition.