OPINION

Veil of illusions lifted

For years we feared
that the dangerous game between anti-establishment youths and police would lead to someone being killed. But even so, when the dreadful event did occur, no one could have predicted how terrible it would be nor how it would shake Greece to its core. The murder was not committed in the heat of battle between anarchists and riot police, where it could somehow be explained as a predictable accident. It came in the form of a police officer losing his temper and firing at a group of youngsters, who may or may not have taunted him and his partner when they drove by a bar in the anarchist stronghold of Exarchia. The victim, instead of a hardened firebomb-hurling veteran of years of clashes with the police, was a beardless 15-year-old from a middle-class suburb of Athens, who was celebrating a friend’s nameday in Exarchia.
Things could
not have been worse for the police, the government or for Greece itself. Alexis Grigoropoulos, the victim, became an instant symbol for everyone looking for a martyr. For the anarchists and other anti-establishment groups, Alexis personified all victims of state brutality. This gave legitimacy and purpose to the angry young men and women who have made a life out of attacking police and other symbols of state authority with seeming impunity. These tough youths then went on the rampage, exploiting demonstrations staged by other groups to attack police and destroy property. Their new legitimacy and the inexplicable order given to police to stand back from the violence, resulted in the worst civil unrest and property damage ever seen in Athens (and several other cities) during peacetime. In its guilt-tainted passivity, which it presented as restraint, the government managed to humiliate itself and the state machinery twice: It had not prevented a state employee – a policeman – from killing a child and it now abdicated its responsibility to protect its citizens’ property.
But the anarchists’
rage and the government’s groveling pale beside the emotions that the murder and its aftermath stirred in the greatest part of the population. Everyone saw something to grieve for in young Alexis’s death: the unjustified violence that took his life, the sense of helplessness in the face of a state that does not protect its citizens, the anger at the myth of a state that provides education, health and security to its citizens. These feelings came at a time when Greece is being rocked by the beginning of an economic storm, the outcome of which no one can predict but which is sure to leave us much worse than we were before. The government, with a one-seat majority, has been paralyzed by a parliamentary and judicial inquiry into ministers’ possible acquiescence to an exchange of property that benefited the acquisitive monks of the Vatopedi Monastery at the state’s expense. Overall, there is a sense in Greece that the politicians are incapable of meeting the challenge of the times and yet our political system has no way to renew itself with young, useful people. The public fears that the next generation will lead a more difficult life than their parents. The anger and disaffection has been growing for years. Now the violence, which was top news across the world for several days, will lead to an even greater drop in tourism and to greater unemployment and other problems related to a slowing economy.
If there is anything
to be gained from Alexis Grigoropoulos’s death, it is that, at last, many of us can see where years of ignoring our problems can lead. Exarchia, where the killing took place, is a fine example of our collective delusion: For years, anarchists were allowed to bully the police, while the police showed superhuman restraint; both sides began to act as if this were the routine, the way the game is played. But familiarity bred contempt, and contempt lead to violence. While the underlying fear always existed that someone would be killed, the extent of the consequences is no longer unclear. The violence shook Greece and dispelled many illusions. And now it is time to start fixing things.