Citizens’ self-defense

The dramatic appeal for a national mobilization in the face of a heightened threat of devastating forest fires this summer, which Public Order Minister Nikos Dendias voiced in Parliament on Thursday, underlines both the dangers and the opportunities that today’s crisis provides. The dangers stemming from the lack of resources must be offset by the greater participation of citizens in their own protection. If society mobilizes as it can, as it used to in the past, the crisis may help strengthen our social bonds and improve citizens’ feeling of self-worth.

“In the end, it is an issue of personal and collective responsibility. If we do not get involved, we are in grave danger,” Dendias said. There are already 355 volunteer organizations registered with the Civil Defense secretariat, and a new law proposed by the ministry aims to improve cooperation between the state and citizens’ groups; it establishes rules for the training, evaluation, accreditation and insurance of volunteer groups and their members.

The cooperation between the state machinery and citizens is necessary because state structures are effective only when they are supported by citizens, and they improve only when they serve citizens’ needs. My little village in Crete’s mountains is a fine example: last year it was in the path of a fire that broke out on a nearby slope. It was saved by the swift action of the local fire brigade, with the aid of locals operating under the decisive instructions of a retired fire chief who lives in the village.

Citizens know their own area better than anyone else and have a greater interest in saving it. Many – including pensioners and the unemployed – can offer skills and experience that the state’s local employees may lack. But the issue goes beyond “civil defense.” The voluntary offer of services – and its acceptance by the state, the Church or any other organization – improves efficiency but also gives the citizen the satisfaction of giving. When the state takes the offer seriously, when it supports it and shows that it appreciates it, it encourages further cooperation and becomes more effective.

In the past, when the state was more aloof, the Greeks cooperated closely with each other in order to solve or prevent problems. In the years of prosperity, we all expected everything from the state – to the point that we weakened the state and our own capabilities. Now that the state and citizens are with their back to the wall, we see that personal interest and collective interest are one – either we learn to work together or we will be continually in danger.