Leaps of logic

The bombs and blood had to hit Istanbul for Greeks to feel just how much September 11 had changed the world. The city is still known here as Constantinople – or simply the City – and, despite falling to the Turks in 1453, it remains at the center of the Greek psyche as much as Athens. So when Istanbul was hit the Greeks felt terrorism’s knock on their door. And, like anyone under threat, they immediately thought of what they had to protect, apart from their lives – and minds turned to the Olympics. Reality as shown on television creates the illusion that we are all part of what happens in the world. But the fact that the events remain on television tends to distance us from reality. But now, with Istanbul shaken on Saturday and again on Thursday, we feel the tremors of blind terror the way we felt the murderous earthquakes of 1999. Perhaps the earthquakes, which also managed to crack the wall of tension between Greece and Turkey, have caused us to be more frightened for ourselves and more sensitive to the plight of our neighbors this time as well. Because not only did we feel the tremors of the Turkish catastrophe, but, less than a month later, an unsuspecting Athens was hit by its own killer quake. This reinforced the feeling that not only do the histories of Greeks and Turks intersect, but so too does their treacherous yet glorious geography. In the face of faceless forces of nature, we discovered our common humanity after decades of hostility, part of many centuries of a shaky cohabitation. International terrorism discriminates among its victims no more than an earthquake does: If you are unlucky enough to be in the wrong place, you are a target. There is no mercy. This terrorism is no less faceless than an earthquake – notwithstanding the inevitable photographs of the strangely mundane perpetrators when once they posed for a passport or identity document or said their last words before their murderous suicide. They come hurtling out of the everyday – climbing onto a bus, walking into a restaurant, driving a caterer’s van into the British Consulate in Istanbul. They turn big, homely, bumbling commercial jets into weapons of mass destruction capable of killing thousands. They are like an earthquake that turns a home into a grave. The rising terror exploits every crack, every weakness in the society that hosts its targets. After the incomparable evil and breathtaking imagination of the assault on America, and at least another 12 smaller but still major attacks across the world, it is still impossible to tell whether terrorism has now become so powerful that, like a tide against a dike, it will inevitably break through any weakness and defeat any preparation that is not adequate. In the two years since September 2001 we have not been able to work out whether bin Laden’s phantom battalions are growing greater or are just clever enough to cause such destruction that the result always seems greater than its perpetrators. This is the «asymmetric threat» we talk about. But we do not know how big the unknown factor of this equation is. In the past, in Byzantium for example, it could take months for the emperor to learn of a new threat on the borders, or even a battle that his troops had lost. Today, despite television and satellites, Constantinople (or Washington) still does not know much about the enemies at the gate. And the gate is metaphorical, because the enemy is now in the city. With humanity so unsettled in the past few years, the Olympics – humanity’s greatest, single communal endeavor – appeared to be the perfect opportunity to celebrate the triumph of civilized societies over the medieval madmen who believe a vengeful god acts through their dark desires. That’s when it looked as if this deadly storm would pass. Now it looks as if we will have to stage the Olympics in this toxic climate. And it appears that not only security officials are aware of this but even the Greek news media are waking up to the fact. Perhaps by the time the Games arrive most commentators will balance the need for security with the usual (and welcome) emphasis on the need to defend civil liberties. Officials stress that they are taking security for the Games very seriously, in the understanding that the Olympics will be the perfect showcase for international terrorism to show that it has the ability to destroy any target at will. Despite the usual and initial touchiness, the Greeks are working with experts from Britain, the United States, Israel, France, Spain and Australia to prepare for every possible form of attack. This is reassuring, although we must hope that the security measures will not be so intrusive as to spoil the Games for Athenians and their visitors. But is it inevitable that terror, having struck Istanbul, will stomp onward toward Greece and the Olympics? Here we have to wade into the fog of conjecture, basing our estimates on nothing more empirical than imagination and guesswork. One of the points arguing against any major terrorist attack against the Olympics, despite their being the most succulent target in the world, is that the attacks of September 11 were so apocalyptic as to make it unlikely that they were part of an escalating plan. Again, there is no proof for this, but it would seem odd that the planners of the attacks on the most potent symbols of their greatest enemy (the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and wherever the fourth plane was headed, with the White House or Capitol among the possibilities mentioned) would have planned for anything bigger after that. So, if there was no long-term planning for an attack on Athens 2004, then it is most unlikely that sleeper cells would have been established in Greece, with operatives slowly preparing a cache of explosives. Preparations would have had to start relatively late, when the September 11 attacks had already alerted us all to the new dangers lurking in the world. The subsequent attacks claimed by Al Qaeda or its affiliates have been devastating and shockingly surprising but have certainly not been on the scale of September 11 – neither in concept nor in execution. They have mostly been carried out by local groups which are part of the society in which the attacks took place, using locally acquired materials. In this, Greece and Turkey are vastly different. Although both stand on the axis between East and West, Turkey has far greater tensions and more contradictions within its society. As an ancient crossroads and the remnant of a vast empire, it hosts representatives of many ethnic groups, religions and ideologies. And many of its citizens or immigrants are angry, for a variety of reasons ranging from religious to class differences. Greece, on the other hand, is greatly homogeneous, with almost all its residents ethnic Greek and Orthodox Christian until an immigrant influx over the past decade. There has never been any sign of extremism among Greece’s 120,000 or so Muslims, who have been here for centuries and who mostly live in Thrace, in northeastern Greece. This, again, does not rule out the possibility of there being some angry extremists among Greece’s native Muslims, but it is very unlikely that no sign of this would have appeared by now. This leaves the possibility of infiltration by terror operatives trying to sneak into Greece as economic migrants. Although it is difficult to control illegal immigration, once in Greece these people cannot act as unobtrusively as they would if they were part of the local population or Greece was not as homogeneous as it is. First of all, in a most politically incorrect fashion, security officials say they are monitoring all Muslim groups, including immigrants and refugees. Much is made of the fact that there are about a million immigrants in Greece, but the vast majority are from Albania and other Southeastern European countries. People from more «suspect» areas, such as the Middle East, usually move onward and westward to countries more used to sheltering the world’s needy. In short, international cooperation and the knowledge of how vulnerable the Olympics are, as well as a security budget of some 650 million euros, are expected to turn the Athens Games into a fortress. Terrorism, by definition, cannot get involved in set battles. It has to come out of nowhere and disappear again in a cloud of smoke and fire. So, after calculating the dangers and preparing for the worst, the gatekeepers will have to use a secret weapon. They must let their imaginations run wild. The argument that terrorism will stop when the Palestinian issue and other injustices are dealt with is valid but insufficient. But these are not the only reasons that terror has been let loose on the world by savage, apostolic nuts – nor will zealots already launched on their missions turn back. The root causes of terrorism must be dealt with but it is also imperative to stamp out those already committed to the battle. There is no formula for this other than intelligence gathering and intelligent policing. But it is imagination that will decide the war. Security depends on imagining the impossible and pre-empting it. This is the pre-emptive war that is stronger than all America’s missiles and stronger than a thousand trucks loaded with explosives. It is on this battlefield that Al Qaeda gained the initial advantage and it is here that it will have to be defeated.