Rings of light

How odd it is to think about the Greek elections of last weekend while blood lies on the tracks in Madrid, when the world’s tide of blood keeps rising and now laps at Europe’s heart, when our long-troubled corner of the world seems like a haven of tranquility. But the terrorist strike in Madrid on Thursday and the elections in Athens last Sunday, and in Spain tomorrow, are all tied together in the big knot that is the world today. Because terrorism is one of our world’s great plagues (along with poverty, disease and corruption) while democracy is one of its greatest achievements (on a par with medicine, dentistry and technology). And though democracy cannot be seen as the cure to all the world’s ills – indeed, sometimes it may even release poisons trapped by the tourniquets of authoritarianism – democracy, very simply, is the light toward which humanity must labor so that the brief moment each of us enjoys in the sun can be the happiest one possible. In a flawless election that further confirms the flawless democracy we have enjoyed since 1974, the elections in Greece brought about a change of government, with the conservatives sweeping in by a margin that not even their wildest supporters could have imagined. In the most peaceful way, our lives will change. PASOK, which had had a monopoly on power since 1981 – except for a break in 1990-93 – appeared well ready to step aside into the opposition, its members exhausted by the years of governance. They were also drained by the roller-coaster ride of the last couple of months, after Costas Simitis handed the reins of the party to George Papandreou a few weeks before the election, and yet it seemed that the Socialists might just win against all odds. In the end, their fatigue matched that of most voters. The handover of power at the prime minister’s office and every ministry was the most amiable we have seen – more so than after a Cabinet reshuffle, in which outgoing ministers felt the weight of defeat on their solitary shoulders rather than as a result of a collective battle lost. Tomorrow the Spaniards will go to the polls to display the strength of their democracy and to confirm their understanding that each person counts for the expression of his or her will. These votes go toward a collective expression of a nation’s expectations and values. And, in this case, as in the massive, majestic and silent demonstrations yesterday, they are a deafening declaration of defiance against terror. This is the opposite of terrorism’s theorem, in which the individual matters only as part of a total of dead and maimed. In democracy, the objective is for the greatest number of people to support one vision, in a shared though competitive effort to improve their lives. In terrorism, the will of one person or group, unable or unwilling to sway the majority in any other way, tries to impose itself on the greatest number of living by piling up the greatest possible number of dead. This is the politics of fear. Democracy is the politics of desire. But Madrid is pertinent not only for the contrast of dark and light, of fear and hope, of displays of terror and democratic elections. Madrid sets the scene for the new world in which governments will have to act. It goes without saying that post-election Spain will be transformed by the terrorist attack – irrespective of whether it was perpetrated by Basque or Islamist terrorists. But Greece too has been rocked by the blasts in distant Iberia. With the Olympic Games due start in just five months, the terrorist attack in Madrid drives home the message that security is Greece’s top priority. The new government, just sworn in on Wednesday, confirmed this in the most unequivocal way yesterday, issuing a formal invitation to NATO to help make the Olympics safe. This came after months of shilly-shallying by the PASOK government which, on the one hand, wanted to call on Greece’s allies to help protect the Games but, on the other, could not quite get itself to defy the vocal minority that would accuse the government of handing over sovereignty to foreign powers. This routine fuzzy-mindedness resulted in the truly bizarre situation on Thursday night, only hours after the Madrid massacre, when hundreds of demonstrators marched from Parliament to the US Embassy to protest against security measures for the Olympics and the presence of US troops for a major Greek-American exercise. (The march had been planned earlier as a demonstration against the alleged subservience of the former government, but the organizers, so sensitive to any infringements of human rights that they can stage a protest at the drop of a hat, could not quite get themselves to reschedule this one. Only in Greece.) For Greece, the Madrid attack, coming after the suicide bombings in Istanbul in November, was a frightening reminder that no country is immune from terrorism. But here, as in the rest of Europe and the United States, it suddenly became of the greatest importance to know who was behind the Madrid attacks – as if this were as important as the event itself. If the massacre was the product of domestic terrorism, that would be very sad for Spain but would probably not matter as much to the rest of the world, the thinking went. But if Islamic terrorists had perpetrated the outrage, then it would be seen as a tightening of the noose that threatens societies everywhere, bringing each into the queue for its «own September 11,» as headline writers like to put it. This terrorism has no logic other than to destroy, to hurt and punish the perceived enemy, and in so doing to elevate the perpetrator of the crime in the eyes of his fellow fanatics. And this would have a direct effect on the Athens Olympics. Greek officials, and those of other countries who are helping to create the security umbrella for the Games, already know that the Olympics are a prime target. So they are doing all they can both to protect them and to make sure that likely attackers will understand that it would be worth their while to turn their attention elsewhere. But even if Greece can be turned into an impregnable fortress, perhaps the terrorists do not need to do anything more than they have already to spoil the Olympics. With the Games just five months away, the sense of insecurity that has been heightened by the Madrid attack will probably torpedo many visits to Athens during the Olympics. Because the sorry tale of delays in preparations for the Games is secondary to the fact that time is quickly running out on another front: Despite the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, despite the unprecedented and previously inconceivable intensification of security across the world, the international war on terrorism is far from over. And it is now clear that even if Osama bin Laden and his gang were to be eliminated in the next few months, the fuse that they have lit will continue to set off bombs all over the world. Even if Al Qaeda is not behind every attack, its merciless, devastating and morbidly inspired acts of terror have set the standard with which we now live and die. First New York and Washington, then Bali, Casablanca, Baghdad, Istanbul, Baghdad again and again, and now Madrid. It is as if the earth has come under a meteor shower and no one knows where the next one will fall. Like the dinosaurs, we can look about, alarmed and uncomprehending, unable to know how much this will change our lives. But like the millions of Spaniards in the streets yesterday, like the millions who will vote tomorrow, we can set our hearts and minds on doing the best we can – on living, on speaking and dreaming and voting for change. The challenge of the Olympics may seem overwhelming, and more of a curse than an opportunity. But in meeting the challenge of the preparations, in making the Games safe, in making them great, Greece will be blessed. It will, at last, have the opportunity to present its own beacon to the world to match those great ancient contributions to civilization – contributions like democracy and the Olympics. And, like the Spaniards, like the Americans, like the Iraqis, like everyone else in the world, it will take the determination and the desire of every one of us to achieve this. To conquer fear, civilization must not sink.

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