OPINION

The Week in Review

One of the more memorable plays of the 20th century is, without doubt, Peter Weiss’s allegory of 1964 in which the lunatics in an asylum present a play written and directed by the Marquis de Sade on the murder of the French revolutionary Jean-Paul Marat. The persecution and assassination of Marat as performed by the inmates of the asylum of Charenton under the direction of the Marquis de Sade is its full title. The audience (the asylum’s director, his wife and daughter, as well as the brutal nurses) attending the play, in turn, is made up of actors acting for the audience in their seats. In other words, actors play lunatics playing at being actors impersonating reality, while their audience is made up of actors being members of the audience, who get sucked into the action of the play, while the play’s writer and director is himself an actor on stage, and so on and so forth. Confusion reigns and the wisest man is the captive lunatic, de Sade. In one scene, the marquis, the father of sadism, is whipped. Is he acting? Is he himself? I am one of those who has to be defeated/ and from this defeat I want to seize/ all I can get with my own strength, de Sade says. I step out of my place/ and watch what happens/ without joining in/ observing/ noting down all my observations/ and all around me/ stillness/ And when I vanish/ I want all trace of my existence/ to be wiped out. This play within a play, this blurring of borders between theater and reality is a little like following developments in Greece in times of crisis. You cannot tell if the bodiless heads opining away angrily and incessantly on television programs are acting or whether they believe all they say. You cannot tell where the acting ends and reality begins. You cannot tell what role you, as a member of the audience, are playing, because much of the trash-talking is encouraged by the people who invite rabble-rousers to their shows in order to have higher ratings. In the end, the audience that listens to the eccentric, bigoted, and even dangerous comments for long enough absorbs them and adopts them for its own. So, for example, when one speaker on Greek television picks up the false and malicious rumor (popular in Pakistan as well) that the Jews all left the World Trade Center before the attacks and he or she uses this to make a scurrilous revelation aimed at helping an argument that has no basis in reality, many members of an audience that otherwise prides itself on its incessant skepticism immediately adopts the claim and presents it as fact. (Is it a national trait or do all people adopt with such ease any claim that strengthens their prejudice while seeming never to be able to change their minds in the face of superior arguments or the observation of fact?) It is a peculiarly Greek tragedy, though, that the incessant chorus of talking heads on TV is not only bodiless but most often brainless as well. It is also appropriate that many of these babblers are usually actors or journalists, people who have ample opinions unencumbered by the burden of knowledge. Then there is the extensive history of theatrical gestures in our streets, with demonstrations against anything you might choose, whether it be the visit by President Bill Clinton, to the visit by Pope John Paul II, to NATO’s war on Yugoslavia to globalization, etc. This is what thinking people, as a kind of alibi, now describe as a small but vocal minority. The problem, as others counter, is that the majority is deafeningly silent. And this is natural, because only those who are members of organized groups like the unreformed Communist Party or the Genoa 2001 anti-globalization movement will take to the streets to make their feelings felt. Only those who are die-hard soccer hooligans will jeer during a moment’s silence and bring with them Israeli and US flags for burning. But the rest will take this in stride, seeing it as natural that some people should misbehave and that the range of feeling of the Greek people is a lot more complex than these images would imply. But then again, we have seen enough spontaneous demonstrations by intellectuals and solidarity concerts for a variety of causes that it is noticeable that nothing like this appeared in the wake of the terrorist attacks in America. Is it because the vocal minority has managed to impose its opinion as the overriding one? Is this the reason why Archbishop Christodoulos made that horrible slip in the days after September 11 when he suggested that the United States was paying the price of arrogance? Was he, as has become his custom since his election in 1998, playing up to his audience instead of leading his flock onto surer ground? The unfortunate truth, for the Greeks, is that we forget that when we are drawn into the play, as if we are actors, there is still an audience outside that does not have the time, the inclination or the patience to work out whether we are acting or whether the lunatics, the actors and the audience have become one. This has enraged, first of all, Greek Americans, who take the images coming out of Greece personally, and then Americans, as the letter columns in Kathimerini’s English Edition illustrate almost daily. There are no excuses, other than to say that what will count in the end is what the government will do. And it has made absolutely plain that it will do all necessary in the global war on international terrorism. But just as hooligans have been tolerated as they drove other fans from the stadiums, so we should ponder why the few people in the streets and the few on television should be the ones who are seen as the reality of Greece and the Greeks. Why is it that like de Sade in Weiss’s play, we are the cleverest people we know but we are talking to ourselves in the asylum, too clever for our own good? The time is out of joint Much of the anger and hurt felt in America might be attributed to many Greeks not understanding how serious a shock our friends in the United States have suffered, nor how much everyone’s daily lives (aside from mourning the many deaths or dealing directly with security issues) may change because of all this. This is a very strange time. On the surface, only the gap in the Manhattan skyline over the rubble of the World Trade Center and its many trapped souls, and the deep burn in the Pentagon, are there to show that the gate of hell is still ajar, and it is likely that more violence and destruction will follow before we can close it again. If we can close it. Otherwise, aside from our keen interest in the news from America and Afghanistan (and Pakistan and Tajikistan or whatever), life carries on pretty much as usual. So much so that perhaps we are lulled into believing that what happened on September 11 is something we can take in stride, placing it among the other events – big or small – of our lives and national experience. But September 11 is a deep cut into both our individual and collective being, whose depth is determined to our proximity to the event or the richness of our imagination. We see each other and we look as we always did. But each carries within a different interpretation of where we are and where we are heading. As the days pass, and as the American retaliation for the crime appears to have gone into slow motion (at least in terms of what we see on our television screens), some of us grow more alarmed at the way we imagine things will change in our daily lives while others slip into believing that we can form an opinion, apportion blame, and get on with our lives as if the new information has been absorbed and recorded among all the other detritus of our days. And this is where the first profound new division appears. Suddenly there are those who, like the United States, understand that the world is at war. It began without a declaration, with a massive attack. The casualties that any peace talks would hope to avert have been suffered. Now comes the regrouping before the next battle – along with the question: Was this terror blitz an end in itself, or is the United States being lured into the next step of a bigger plan? If the latter is the case, can we be sure that the best minds are working to solve the problem before it becomes impossible to solve? Is the delay in neat retribution against the prime suspect, Osama bin Laden, allowing time for him to grow in stature among Islamic extremists, perhaps already making the problem impossible to solve without sowing the seeds of more terror and, ultimately, destroying the lives that we lead? These are the questions asked by those who understand that the world is already at war. Then there are those who see the terrorist attack on the United States as a solitary act expressing whatever they believe it to express, an end in itself. For them, what the United States does will determine whether the world is at war. In either case, the United States is called on to fight a war that will be watched, for the first time in history, by a Babel of nations and 6 billion lawyers. In our electronic era, everyone has an opinion and everyone can pass it on to anyone who will listen. And so, perhaps the most important battle that the United States and (to whatever extent they are able to) its allies have to wage is to control the image of reality. In this war, the image on our screens will be far more important than defending buildings and airplanes, more important than inflicting damage on the enemy and protecting our own side from harm. Unless for some reason the United States invades Afghanistan, we can expect that the decisive actions will be carried out far from the television cameras and commentators. The battle, in this case, will be over when the government of the United States decides that its people can be assured that justice has been carried out and that a further threat has been deterred. This is so abstract as to demand the most open-ended of objectives. Justice will be done only when it is perceived to be done. Military action will succeed only when it is seen to be effective and intelligent, when a maximum amount of force is displayed and a minimum is used. This means that not only must intelligence sources be improved and relied upon, but also that the local enemies of the terrorists must have an interest in this victory, both in getting rid of a problem and in achieving their country’s reconstruction. All this makes the target both very difficult to define but also attainable. Because in a war in which the enemy is in our midst, the only way to prevent further terrorist attacks is to convince those who lie in wait that they will not have a glimpse of victory, let alone a hope of paradise. This demands diplomacy, not war. But in this case, the annihilation of those who instigated the murders will function as a potent diplomatic tool, showing that the target (whether it be Western civilization or the United States or whatever) will not be destroyed but will instead destroy those who would do it. This is not just to appear vengeful; it is to prove that terrorism is not viable. Then, whatever theological equivocations justify the murder of civilians must end. Many Islamic scholars have been quoted as saying that Islam does not condone such violence. Can they not engage the radicals among them and win the argument? This is their battle as well. The future of any great religion cannot be hijacked by fanatics with a personal agenda. When this happens, it not only tars a whole civilization with the same brush, but it allows fanatics enough room to grow beyond a certain number or degree of influence, meaning that the first heads to roll will be those of the moderates, the serious, the tolerant – in any society. The blunt declaration by the American president that if you are not with us you are with the terrorists has the benefit of being frank. But it would perhaps be more effective if it were phrased as if you are not against terrorists then you are with the terrorists. This would imply that any country concerned over the threat of terrorism would have an ally in the United States. This would not only allow the US to create the coalition it needs to wage a world war and isolate the terrorists, but also give it room to advise some of the more shady nations on how to improve human rights in their own country to isolate the monsters that the darkness may be nurturing. This may sound outlandish now, but this war will only be won when the world is a better place. And the world would be a better place if it had more of the democracy and human rights that the United States prides itself on representing and defending, and which most other nations of the world would like to share. This means that the United States must be engaged in whatever happens in the world and not follow the road of unilateralism that its new president had tended to follow in previous months. If Greece can contribute anything from this small but noisy corner of the world – in which it is but one nation among many with centuries of conflicting claims on territory and historical justification – it is that action or fortune (both good and bad) determines our future. We do not live in a vacuum, we pay for the consequences of our actions in ways that a great nation such as the United States, at the other end of an ocean, bordering on no troublesome neighbors, has not had to feel until today. If one could be so presumptuous as to suggest a framework for the war of terrorism, it would be one based on justice and retribution through the destruction of the perpetrators and instigators of the September 11 attacks, the social and religious isolation of those who could carry out further attacks, and the reconstruction of the countries that have allowed such terror to breed so as to give their people a stake in the future. After destroying the organs of destruction, in a way in which justice will be seen to be done, the global coalition’s Muslims must undertake the theological battle against those who preach that terror is a viable tool of politics. (This should not be unattainable: If Islam can be so harsh against apostates, how can it tolerate such dangerous perversion of its tenets by its own adherents as the murder of civilians?) Both the military and the theological battles have to be waged and both can be won. The reconstruction of whole regions that will demand less authoritarian ways of government, giving more people an interest in preserving what they will have gained, can then follow. This may sound utopian, but now is the time for such choices. Seldom has the world appeared to stand so clearly on the brink between peace and chaos. Seldom has the choice been so distinct. If both sides in a dispute see where the triumph of extremism will lead, they should be able to make the compromises to end the cycle of terror and retribution, in which both acts blend into one and the distinction depends only on where one stands. The countries that expect the United States to solve their problems can expect Washington to push for quick solutions that will help America forge the necessary coalitions and strategies to win the war. This is now America’s overriding concern. Anyone who understands this will benefit. Those who babble away with theory and outdated arguments will gain nothing. September 11 has shown that America does not have the option of isolationism. Like the rest of us, it now borders on an infinite number and variety of potential threats. This makes every nation indispensable and every problem one that must be solved. Afghanistan once seemed far away and irrelevant.