OPINION

Where are you? What are you doing?

A decade ago, American troops freshly stationed on the border between Yugoslavia and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia were the first to be testing a new gadget dubbed Soldier 911, with which commanders at a base could monitor, through the GPS system, where every soldier or helicopter in their units were and whether they were well or injured. «Most of the message traffic right now is ‘Where are you? What are you doing?’» explained a major from the Advanced Research Project Agency, bouncing around the camp like a boy inventor with an endless supply of research money. In that almost prelapsarian time, the device was intended mainly for helping to prevent foot patrols and helicopters from straying across the unmarked border into the Serbian province that later became a story of its own – Kosovo. The war in Afghanistan has shown how far and how fast the American military has moved to integrate high technology with flesh-and-blood troops, with special forces moving secretly across enemy territory, using laptop computers and laser rays to pinpoint targets for bombers homing in from bases thousands of kilometers away. This has also minimized the deaths of civilians and friendly forces. Yet this new technology has still not helped them find Osama bin Laden. Three-and-a-half months after the terrorist devastation in America, only bin Laden knows where he is and what he might be doing. He wasn’t carrying a Soldier 911 device. The year 2001 will be remembered not only for the hunt for bin Laden but also for the way in which a small group of people was able to wreak sufficient destruction to change the way we look at ourselves and others. Greece, in particular, experienced several incidents this year that have shown old problems in a harsh new light; and it remains unclear whether this will lead to the hasty covering-up of open wounds or whether it will provide an opportunity to lance the abscesses of custom, prejudice and neglect. The terrorist attacks in America, overwhelming in their scale (with more than 3,000 dead) and shocking in their brutality, became the dominant issue of 2001. In our «globalized» world, which is like a shallow lake seeping almost everywhere across the planet, the attacks were like a meteorite falling into a pond. Greece could not avoid the fallout. And it was fitting, in the way of ancient tragedy, that Greece’s own failings should be the cause of much of its discomfort. For decades Greek public debate had tolerated, without contradiction, a kind of know-all anti-American, conspiracy-inspired view of the world. The reasons for this are many – some justified and some not – and we have been over them time and again. But all the historical complexes and complicated histories became irrelevant in light of September 11. And instead of taking the opportunity to express the compassion and concern that one would to a friend or family member, the only demonstrations held by the Greeks, and the loudest commentaries, seemed to imply that they were gloating at how the mighty had fallen. The anti-globalization groups and Communist revivalists found a new cause, attacking America for the retribution they expected to rain down on bin Laden and the Taleban (and which was a month in coming). Soccer hooligans took special note, with some of them at a European championship game chanting «Osama» and trying to burn the American flag – just days after the attacks. Weekend warriors hooked on shock tactics, the hooligans knew a master of shock strategy when they saw one, so they saluted Osama. This, the superficial cleverness of talking heads on television, and the lack of compassion by some members of the public all fueled a blizzard of e-mail messages across the Atlantic. Self-absorbed as always, and used to tolerating hooligans in their stadiums and inanity in their commentaries, the Greeks did not remember that the Americans were not only their friends but also included many, many Greek Americans whose sorrow for their homeland was compounded by their shame at the behavior of many in their ancestral land. Many Greek Americans suddenly realized they were more American than Greek, and that their ties with Greece would no longer be the same. Perhaps, in time, this wound will heal. But the fact that the Greek Americans may no longer see Greece in such a rosy light might not be such a loss to them. The government has done everything it can to express support and provide help to the United States, but the damage done to its image will take long to erase. Fortunately, the quick resolution of the war in Afghanistan has helped to calm the situation. But attitudes among the public and commentators have not discernibly changed. Being proved wrong, in Greece, usually leads to gripping your convictions more firmly rather than changing your opinion. Time will tell. In the meantime, the government knows where it wants Greece to stand in the international community and is trying to drag the public in that direction. Much will depend on the improving relations with Turkey in a bid to solve the Cyprus problem and maintain the status quo in the Aegean. If the cooperative spirit succeeds the skeptical flesh will follow, albeit grudgingly. The coming year will be crucial for Cyprus, with the EU aiming for a solution by year-end. What happens now will determine Greece’s relations with Turkey but also with its Western allies, whom the Greeks have accused of supporting Turkey with their neutrality. There were other moments which also showed that the Greeks must start dealing with long-festering problems. Prime Minister Costas Simitis heralded 2001 as the most crucial year of his governance, promising much-needed reforms to make the country cope in the highly competitive international environment. In the end, the government introduced some timid labor-market reforms which do not appear to have helped employment. Then, when its proposals for social security reforms were condemned by the opposition parties, unions and dissatisfied members of Simitis’s own PASOK party, with the claim that they made people work longer for less money, the government threw away the year. It froze its proposals in March, then pulled them off the table completely. Simitis then threatened to resign unless PASOK’s executive bureau agreed to his demand for the party congress to be brought forward six months to October. He emerged from the congress the undisputed leader of PASOK and with a renewed promise of reform – but that was where we were before the whole social security fiasco. Greece will join, on Tuesday, 11 other nations in introducing the euro. But the economy still needs the changes that will get more of those damned euros in our pockets. And with provincial and local elections due in October, government officials believe they have only six months to carry out their economic reforms. But given the will, even one day would be enough. This year will also be remembered for another momentous event: The Greeks, very slowly, began to come to grips with their religion and that of others. Pope John Paul II finally made it to Greece on May 4, fulfilling a dream to walk in the steps of the Apostle Paul. The Church of Greece, fearing the protestations of Orthodox fanatics and its own rank and file, was forced to acquiesce in the visit after President Costis Stephanopoulos invited the pope. Not only did the sky not fall on the faithful during the pontiff’s visit but Archbishop Christodoulos basked in the international spotlight that follows the pope. All it cost him was a slap by a young zealot incensed at the fact that the archbishop had welcomed the pope. This was partly Christodoulos’s fault, as his vain call to arms to the faithful to try to prevent the removal of religious affiliation from identity cards brought onto the street forces that should have stayed in church. In all, though, perhaps the public will no longer swallow the silliness about the pope being the arch-heretic and a two-horned monster, as the head of the union of Greek clerics had called him. Our journey toward knowledge and tolerance continues. So where are we and where are we going? The global economic crisis, the fear of international terrorism, and its consequences for our lives have introduced a new sorrow and thoughtfulness to generations unfamiliar with war. At the same time, though our world has changed, perhaps we can save what we love. Perhaps the challenges will force us to decide who we are and where we are going. We are lucky. We are alive and we have that chance.