OPINION

The Week in Review

The freedom to say what we like is, as we all know, a double-edged sword. Having said your bit, you then have to live with the consequences. When much of the public debate has been defined along partisan lines and personal obsessions, there is a danger of spending so much time on the other side of the line between liberty and license that debate becomes so skewed, and no common ground can be reached between two sides in the same argument – unless both are so far off that they either agree with each other or summon up such degrees of willful blindness to the other that they end up expressing and fortifying similar forms of fanaticism. This is amply evident from observing any debate on Greece’s television channels, the line of several newspapers (not only in commentaries but in headlines too) and from having the opinions of others thrust, unsolicited, upon anyone in proximity. At the same time, the Greeks have become so used to drawing on huge and ready reserves of passion to discuss the minutiae of ancient conflicts that they seem unable to adapt their thinking to any new challenges that might befall them. In doing so, they have managed to negate their collective intellect by turning any discussion into a free-for-all in which no one wins, turning their voice into an incoherent shout and making themselves – to all intents and purposes – irrelevant on the world stage. In other words, frolicking without restraint for too long in a country where freedom of speech has become the freedom to screech what we say concerns only us. This means that for anyone to be heard he or she has to find even more outlandish claims to make or arguments to propose. In other words (for our mass media at least), uncouth is cool. If, for some reason, other people suddenly tune in and hear what we have to say, they can only be stunned by the passion, conviction and sometimes paranoia with which fallacious arguments may be presented, unfounded rumors taken as foundations for intransigent opinion, personal obsessions presented as universal truths and the object of our disdain demonized. We can only shrink in horror at what would happen were we to have an international pulpit for our ranting. We might even resemble – collectively – someone like R. James Woolsey, a ubiquitous and seemingly omnipresent American commentator. The former director of the Central Intelligence Agency (from the truly mixed-up Carter era) leaves no opportunity unexploited to smear Greece and Cyprus in the eyes of the international community, thanks largely to the high profile given him lately by the spectacular failure of the agency that he headed and a series of equally high-profile interviews. The latest of these was with the Christian Science Monitor on November 23 in which, during a discussion on international terrorism, Woolsey named Iran, Iraq, Syria – the usual suspects – and then added: And you have countries like Greece that are not working as hard as they should… In the immediate aftermath of September 11, the first target Mr Woolsey lashed out at was Cyprus, alleging in an interview with La Repubblica that Cyprus was bin Laden’s treasury and that the Cypriots, despite being warned by an undefined us, did nothing about this and should therefore be told that they would have to wait 400 years to join the European Union. This prompted Cyprus’s foreign minister, Yiannakis Cassoulides, to demand, Who is this Woolsey? If the man in question knew that bin Laden had money in Cypriot banks and had not advised the Cypriot authorities, he added, He should be punished with a 400-year prison term. The fact that the US government does not adopt Mr Woolsey’s advice and that reality frequently turns out to be rather different from his claims does not seem to deter him. As the somewhat more precise statements and decisions of the American authorities have shown, if it turns out that Cyprus is involved in the bin Laden money trail, it is only a link in a very long and complicated chain that stretches through many countries that Woolsey would not deign to name in the same breath as Iran, Iraq and Syria. This does not mean that Greece can be proud of its failure to solve the problem of the November 17 terrorist organization, which is Woolsey’s ostensible reason to attack Greece and also the cause of a seemingly endless series of angry and ill-informed American commentaries about how unfit Athens is to host the Olympics. But when, at the same time, Woolsey’s enmity stretches comfortably over Greece and Cyprus as he extols the virtues of Turkey’s strategic importance and expediency to the United States, one can only wonder whether he does not feel that perhaps he risks blowing his cover (or didn’t they teach such things at Langley in his time?). And if he does not care about how he misbehaves, maybe those who give him the opportunity to do so should reconsider, for the sake of their own credibility. It is almost comical to what extent American journalists are prepared to go to present their efforts as objective, such as declaring in a piece that the company being written about is a partner of another company that perhaps, after a series of mergers and acquisitions, owns the company that employs the author. Yet, at the same time, the people to whom they provide a soapbox are under no similar obligation to come clean. Woolsey might do the American press a favor if his behavior can be the object of discussion if and when we return to normal pursuits in the media. Behaving as they do, ready to take offense and to elevate insignificant commentators to the level of national enemies, the Greeks are often deserving of opponents with an apparent agenda. Indeed, with their reliance on outdated thinking, the Greeks are perhaps deserving of rivals such as the Turks. It is no coincidence that it was only when Greece’s foreign policy shifted its focus from emotionally confronting the Turks at every step to making the European Union demand that Turkey behave in a way befitting of an EU member that the Turks began to short-circuit and their own arteriosclerotic policies to waver. But the Greeks, at least, are not mercenary in their obsessions. In fact, if anything, all they do is harm themselves and their cause and no one else. In this, the November 17 outfit causes such harm because its fanatical violence is so foreign in a country that otherwise would be an oasis of peace. Unlike other feeble-minded orators, November 17 makes a point of affecting other people’s lives with its violence and, consequently, Greece’s relations with other countries. But at what point can one say that a national folly born of our emotional response to events, and which borders on unbelievable naivete, deserves or justifies the calumny and apparently mercenary attentions of Woolsey and his kind?