Crime and punishment

We hoped it was just a bad dream when we heard the sickening news on Monday that a bus full of schoolchildren, coming to Athens to attend the Paralympics, had been hit by an oncoming truck in central Greece. But it was all too true. Seven 15-year-old children were killed. This came in the same month that 17 people were killed when an army Chinook helicopter crashed into the sea off Mount Athos, a crash which led to a crisis in the military and the government when it emerged that it took nearly two hours for anyone to realize it had occurred. Then there was the tragicomedy of Agriculture Minister Savvas Tsitouridis and PASOK spokesman Spyros Vougias being forced to resign after tit-for-tat denunciations by their political rivals that they had wrangled favorable transfers from provincial universities to Athens and Thessaloniki, respectively, for their offspring. Forming the backdrop to this, the big picture was of an economy that had been denounced by its own handlers as being riven with deficits, leading to harsh criticism from some of Greece’s partners in the EU. And to top it all, prosecutors began sending reports into arms procurements to Parliament for further investigation into whether former ministers of the PASOK government and other officials might have been involved in dirty deals. After the great summer in which Greece managed to host a superb Olympic Games – providing state-of-the-art facilities, impeccable organization, sophisticated transport systems and a national display of the joy of living here and being Greek – it was tragic that this other Greece would intrude in such a brutal way. It was especially sad that the seven schoolchildren should die, and at least one other should be maimed (losing a hand), while on their way to the Paralympics. It was tragic that children coming to attend what was a celebration of the human spirit in adversity should suffer death and the very injuries that Paralympic athletes fight to overcome every day. It was as if we are unable to see the light without seeing the dark, the day without the night, the joy of life without the ever-present threat of death. We cannot celebrate a great achievement without the dark side of life springing up out of the earth like some unsatiated Fury, demanding to be paid in blood for some forgotten crime. Our bright and sunny country was once again plunged into mourning by the particularly sad story of young lives lost. And once again the monster of the country’s roads was clearly to blame, like the day in April 2003 when a truck hit a bus carrying teenage schoolchildren and killed 21 of them in the Vale of Tempe. And here much has been said and written about how we all share blame for our suicidal relationship with the road. That is true. But what is also true is that deadly roads cause more deaths than less deadly roads do. And the road on which the children died on Monday, a narrow strip along the Maliakos Gulf in central Greece which is part of the Athens-Thessaloniki highway but has one lane in each direction and no barrier in between, is the deadliest place in Greece. If we could see the dead standing in sullen silence on the road not one of us would pass. Between 80 and 100 people die on this stretch every year, Public Works Minister Giorgos Souflias admitted at a mournful news conference after the crash. There are many other bad stretches of highway in Greece but this is the worst. Close behind is the road between Corinth and Patras. It is not enough to say that the road is there and drivers must do what they can, dealing with the given conditions. These roads are downright dangerous. For example, these stretches are between far better bits of road, in which cars move quickly and safely in two or more lanes of closed highway, with nothing coming at them from another direction. Then, suddenly, they are on narrow strips in which trucks either force them to overtake in the tight space left before the white line or they face the risk of vehicles coming at them from the opposite direction. (And, let’s face it, not one of us will stay behind a truck spewing out thick diesel fumes for many kilometers without making an effort to overtake. If we don’t do this, someone else will try it from our side of the road or the other, placing us in danger once again.) It is inconceivable that after so much money has been spent on transportation projects and so many years have passed that we should still have such deadly roads. Even if one can say that we Greek drivers are reckless and irresponsible, that should be all the more reason for the State to ensure that the roads are as good as possible. And once again the country’s airwaves, coffee shops and private gatherings were dominated by the talk of who was to blame. The usual culprits were the «big interests» which did not allow major projects to be carried out unless they had been granted the contract and so had hindered the construction of an undersea tunnel and the construction of a new highway that would have eliminated the most dangerous spots. Also named were the «local interests» – the shopkeepers, taverna-owners and mayors of communities along the scenic route – which can always be counted on to object to their being left out of the loop. Then there were the governments (of all political hues) and the state machinery which just let things go on in their wretched way, remembering only after a bloodbath that something needs to be done – until the next spectacular disaster somewhere else distracts us all and leaves the deathtraps in place, like some mythical monster that keeps exacting a regular tax in lives and will just not die. That is what made the Athens Olympics the catalyst for real changes to be made in the capital. The deadline of the Games forced us to break the vicious cycle, regardless of the cost. And this makes it all the more strange that whenever such a disaster befalls us, we go through the same ritual. First we look for someone to blame. That means that those involved in the crash – both the driver of the vehicle that was hit and the one that hit it are arrested. The driver believed to be responsible is then charged with a crime similar to premeditated mass murder, as if he woke up that day, picked up his favorite assault rifle and shot dead a few dozen people at the local supermarket for kicks. The raging chorus of brainless TV heads then raises a furious din so that no one can see what might truly be to blame and what should be done. The government promises crackdowns on perpetrators, new roads, and so on and so forth. Until, in the end, everyone is so tired of the issue and so lacking in expectations of any improvement, that it is almost with relief that we all move on to the next subject until the first anniversary of the disaster, where we inevitably hear complaints by the bereaved families or survivors that they have been abandoned by the State, that nothing has been done, that «those responsible» have not been punished, that our roads/skies/seas/railway lines are unsafe. This goes on for a few years until the issue becomes annoying, in which case it is left to families of the dead to remember their loss on their own. The Cretans, who know about as much as any people about the joy of life in the implacable presence of death, have a saying that «it is better to be the mother of the killer than of the victim.» When younger, this struck me as far too brutal and unjust (to the victim) to be acceptable to us today. Now the message has been hammered home so many times that there is no longer any doubt about what it means. Death is final, anything less is not. And those who have been touched by death are the only ones who will never recover. Our punishment – our collective punishment – is that we do not ensure that deadly traps are destroyed. Believing that they will destroy only others, we are shocked, we look for someone to blame when we ourselves fall into them. On a more banal level, but one which reveals much about the nature of our relationship with authority, is the way in which catastrophes usually lead to new, «stricter» fines and punishments for people breaking the law. This means that those involved in enforcing the law – like traffic police, say – are usually more lenient when faced with the option of causing serious damage to those whom they have caught breaking the law than they would have been if fines or jail terms and other forms of punishment were lighter. If fines were less draconian perhaps laws would be enforced more easily. Instead of creating ever greater forms of punishment as a form of appeasing the public after a disaster it would be better to use a barrage of small fines to keep drivers in check until the roads really are fixed to become safer. Then we could go back to really heavy fines. Roads are the primary form of traffic in Greece and they will continue to be for the foreseeable future. Good roads change everything. We can see this in Athens, which included major roads in the new transport system that it created in time for the Olympics. Better roads are safer roads, and they also allow public transportation to operate more efficiently, leading to fewer vehicles on the road and therefore a greater degree of safety. We will have no more Olympics nor Paralympics. But we have children. We have friends and families and we care for people whom we do not know. We cannot afford to wait for any other deadline in order to demand that our roads – across the country and in our neighborhoods – should be made safe. Every age has dragons to kill and this is ours.