Politics and the final abyss

The violent death of a public figure – by murder, accident or suicide – underlines the oft-forgotten fact that the protagonists of public life, of television clashes and intrigue are made of flesh and bone, of virtues and weaknesses. They are mortal. The rest of us may see them only on the screen or in photographs – and they themselves may forget it at times – but when they are cut they bleed, when the burdens become too heavy they collapse, when they hit something hard they shatter. Christos Zachopoulos’s leap into the void behind his apartment block last Thursday, two days after he resigned as general secretary of the Culture Ministry, has all the elements of a political thriller: sex, politics, blackmail, suggestions of financial impropriety, a suicide attempt, a femme fatale accused of driving the victim to take his own life. We may never know why the long-trusted aide of the prime minister felt the need (or found the strength) to climb over the railings of his balcony and fall four floors. We may never know what pushed him. In his 1981 novel «The Hotel New Hampshire,» John Irving has the members of an eccentric family continually exhorting one another to «keep passing the open windows.» (Of course, as we would expect from an Irving novel, one of the children finally does give in to the void’s fatal seduction). The window, the rope, the gun, the poison, the silent deep – all exert a terrifying attraction for humans. But we are kept in check by fear and by society’s condemnation of the act. And fear is one of the chief reasons why, for all the problems so many humans face, suicide is only the 24th cause of death worldwide. That’s why the suicide of a political personality provokes more questions than does a murder. The passions and calculated interests tied up with politics can easily translate into murderous violence and are easily explained. The danger presented by a tangible enemy usually strengthens the bonds of a group and self-destruction is the last thing on the mind of its members. So what can push a person to pull away from the team, the tribe, the political party, to the point that he turns against himself, and, in his self-destruction, he turns against those whom he blames for causing all the damage? This happens when the individual feels that he has shamed the group and betrayed its trust, or when he feels that the group has exploited him and done him an injustice. In both instances, the bond between the individual and his society is broken. The most ancient people of the world know this. It is said that the Bushmen of southern Africa’s Kalahari Desert ritually turn their backs on a member who has violated the laws of the group. They force him to leave, to live on his own. In the endless loneliness of the desert this leads to psychological collapse and certain death. We cannot know for certain whether it was a personal issue or some shady political-economic entanglement that led Zachopoulos into despair and from despair to the abyss. We do not know if he took upon himself his own sins or the sins of others, or if he simply could not endure an injustice done to him. But many people have to deal with serious problems – personal and otherwise – and yet do not commit suicide. Only few overcome their fear and sense of responsibility toward those they leave behind. In instances such as Zachopoulos’s (as well as in the case of coastal shipping executive Pantelis Sfinias in the wake of the Express Samina sinking in 2000, and of civil servant Rubini Stathea who was accused of not advancing the demolition of illegal buildings in 2003), suicide comes across as a key element in the exercise of political and state power. It occurs when, in the general chaos of illegality and unaccountability, the lights of the «public prosecutors» (read «television personalities») suddenly pick out a single individual. They strip him or her of powers and privacy and cast upon them all the sins of society. Then, when flesh comes up against greater interests, it makes no difference whether one jumps or is pushed.