OPINION

Fatal attraction

e do not know who killed Anna Lindh, and, if the murder of Prime Minister Olof Palme in 1986 is anything to go by, we may never know who struck this terrible new blow at the heart of Sweden’s beautiful democracy. But the murder of the popular foreign minister, whether its motive was political or the result of a crazed mind, brought the nature of leadership down to its very essence: In every social group, some people have to stand apart in order to lead the rest of us, and while they enjoy privilege they also risk danger. The power they wield may be the result of a democratic process, through royal heritage, by their dominating the majority through violence, or any number of variations. These leaders, although as mortal as the rest of us and subject both to assassination and to temptation, by definition, become something else. Like Alexander the Great and Augustus Caesar, they and their followers may know very well that they are mortals; but they assume a touch of divinity which, in the hurly-burly of politics, can be very useful indeed, both for the leader and his parasites. For the most part, though, leaders are invested with a special aura more because of the power they wield over the rest of us, in that their decisions affect our lives, than because of their own charisma (though charm and skill can help increase that power over the multitudes). In our era, the societies that can claim to be the most democratic among us, like the Scandinavians, pride themselves on the openness of their society and their politicians. The message is: We may wield power, but it is the power you have invested in one of your own, one of you who walks among you without the trappings of power, without a large entourage of bodyguards and hangers-on. Lindh was stabbed while shopping alone in a Stockholm department store, the most prosaic of places. This is the latest variation on the nature of leadership. But the basic nature of leadership remains unchanged: The person who wields power personifies power, and those who oppose that expression of power will try to influence events, if necessary by eliminating the leader – and not always by democratic means. The motive may be to try to usurp that power or to change the course the leader has charted or, in what seems most likely in Lindh’s murder, a blind thrust against a symbol. In the last example, the leader shines like a flame for the moths of fatal disaffection. And when the light is snuffed out, we are in awe at the simple fact that what was burning was no less mortal than the rest of us. And we go on, with another in the leader’s place. This week was almost a tutorial on leadership and its symbols. Lindh’s death on Thursday, 12 hours after being stabbed, coincided with the second anniversary of the murder of nearly 3,000 people in the terrorist attacks on America in 2001. The lone murder overshadowed everything else in Europe, where Lindh was known and respected and where she had played a role in formulating policy. In America, deluged by grief and remembrance and the knowledge that the country and the world had changed indelibly in the past two years, Lindh’s murder was a footnote. That is how things are: a monumental event for one group is a footnote for others – unless the fate of one group and its leader is likely to have an effect elsewhere. Lindh’s death is a blow to her family, to her party, to Sweden, to Europe and to various groups of unfortunates that she had championed. But it means nothing to, say, the United States. On the other hand, the fate of Yasser Arafat, and the Israeli Cabinet’s decision on Thursday to exile him from the Palestinian territories, was the lead article in Friday’s New York Times, next to a large photograph from the September 11 commemorations. At a human level, the possibility of the veteran Palestinian leader’s forced removal from his position among his people may not be as cruel a fate as the murder of a 46-year-old mother of two young children. Arafat, an old fox, will live to fight another day. And he, being both a symbol as leader and also well aware of the power and frailty of symbols, is continually surrounded by guards and devoted followers. Shortly after the Israeli Cabinet’s decision became known, thousands of Palestinians surrounded Arafat’s compound in Ramallah, chanting impassioned slogans, prepared to die for him. After months of isolation imposed by Israel and the United States, and rebaptized, as it were, in the font of popular legitimacy, Arafat too proclaimed his readiness to die for his people. This was a textbook display of the power that leaders draw from their people, and the inspiration that leaders inspire in individual followers, pulling them together into a powerful group. For all his failings, Arafat skillfully manages to present himself as the symbol of a downtrodden people oppressed by a far more powerful force. Israel, a democratic country, in turn, knows that its survival depends on its being more powerful and decisive than the huge Arab majority in the region, sometimes prompting it to act irrationally, as in this case. A devoted crowd is the leader’s greatest defense. Arafat, even with his pistol strapped to his waist, would not go anywhere on his own. Even when he visited Athens, the most hospitable of European cities for him, his bodyguards would take up a whole floor in a luxury hotel. By necessity, most leaders are somewhere in between. They do not carry guns or inspire frenzied masses ready to die for them, but they do have enough guards to protect them from all but the most dedicated assassin. The murder of Ayatollah Mohammad Baqer al-Hakim in the Iraqi city of Najaf on August 29 is the exception that proves the rule, with his still-unidentified assailants killing over 80 people to get to him with a bomb, prompting even greater passion and devotion among the dead leader’s followers. As leaders withdraw into the isolation necessary for their survival, they lose their human dimension to the rest of us, becoming an image on the screen or in the paper, becoming a symbol. This may remove them from the marketplace of our modern democracy, but it does help them to stay alive. But a consequence of this is that someone who wants to express violent opposition to the person or policy of that leader (or of the entity that he or she represents) will have to make do with attacking the symbols of that leadership. That is why fuzzy-faced youths in Athens feel that they are striking a blow against George W. Bush and what they perceive as American imperialism whenever they throw a Molotov cocktail at a Citibank branch in Athens. The November 17 terrorist group was the purest expression of this «anti-imperialist symbolism» since members carried out the first of the group’s 23 murders in December 1975. Unable to strike at America or its leadership, the group hit out at its symbols in a progressive display of how difficult such targets became with each strike. The first victim was richly symbolic, the CIA station chief in Athens, Richard Welch. Members then murdered the American officer who headed the joint Greek-US military group, George Tsantes, in 1983, and the naval attache, William Nordeen in 1988. By 1988, security had been ratcheted up to the point where N17 members learned who their target was when they read about him in the next day’s newspapers. Their last American victim was an Air Force sergeant, Ronald Stewart, who was killed in 1991 by a bomb outside his home in Glyfada. A serviceman paid the price for November 17’s self-proclaimed war on America, in what the group said was a protest against Gulf War I. The then-President Bush was safe, until he visited Kuwait and it was discovered that Iraqi agents were involved in a plot to kill him. This was in the days before September 11, 2001, when America was still believed to be safe. But November 17 has another lesson for us concerning leadership. The man suspected of being its founder, mastermind and leader, Alexandros Yotopoulos, has steadfastly refused that he is even a member of the group. Dimitris Koufodinas, who claims «political responsibility» for the gang and was described by other members as the chief hit man and chief of operations, also says the group has no leader and has given no details on how November 17 operated. This has been puzzling, as judging by the narcissism of the group’s actions and proclamations over the years, many of us had expected at least the leaders to go down fighting. But deputy prosecutor Vassilis Markis made an intriguing suggestion on Thursday. If the group’s leaders confessed, that would confirm the end of November 17 and the myth of a popular movement that it had tried to cultivate. In order to exist, in other words, November 17 must pretend it has no head. Like a tortoise that has retreated into its shell, the gang avoids the prodding and sniffing of the curious fox. Unlike our society, the gang can afford to do this because its role is meaningless, it’s not going anywhere anyhow. When the head hides in the dark, the body will stay motionless and die. And so, despite the many complaints that we may have over those who presume to lead us, we should remember, now and then, the cost some pay for sticking their necks out as we – grumbling and shouting and knowing that we can do better – follow.