OPINION

In whose name?

It is difficult to imagine two groups of people more different in their membership and ideology than Osama bin Laden and his cohorts on the one hand and Greece’s November 17 terrorist gang on the other. Yet in the last few days – in Greece, at least – the two were tied together by the first anniversary of the September 11 massacre coinciding with the ongoing unraveling of November 17. Al Qaeda preaches a religious fundamentalism that dreams of a permanent Middle Ages and the subjugation of all other religions as well as all women to the dictates of the dreamers. November 17, on the other hand, grew like a poisonous mushroom on the woolly «internationalism» of Greece’s extreme leftist fringe – claiming to preach a utopian vision of a «socialist revolution» in which, one assumes, all people are equal (except, of course, those they have killed along the way to this ideal society). Al Qaeda is made up of militant Muslim men who were intertwined with their Afghan hosts, the now-ousted Taliban, in the latter’s deeply misogynist regime. November 17’s members, however, appear to have been products of the very laid-back West, with exceedingly relaxed relationships between the sexes. Furthermore, if the charges against Angeliki Sotiropoulou stick, at least one woman was a member of November 17 in recent years, in addition to the mysterious, blonde «Anna» who is said to have been present at the gang’s first murder in December 1975. So, unlike Al Qaeda, ours are equal opportunity terrorists. They also did not discriminate in terms of race or class, as their murder of a lowly sergeant in the US Air Force in March 1991, Ronald Stewart, made clear. Stewart, who was black, was seen as a symbol of the power of the US military establishment who could pay with his life for the Gulf War. Given the incredible difference in the level of destruction that each achieved, there is a striking similarity between the aims and methods of the two groups: the way they chose targets for their symbolic value, and the subjugation of every other concern to this end. For example, November 17 did not care that the people whom it was killing were fellow citizens who had not been given a chance to answer the charges that the terrorists had leveled at them at point-blank range, or that these murders left behind the devastated orphans, widows and parents of 23 human beings. Living out the narcissistic myth of being «social fighters,» November 17’s gunmen tried to justify their actions by vilifying their victims. By this perverted definition, then, if the victim was so bad, the killer was good to the corresponding degree. If November 17’s operatives chose to keep themselves pure of the corruption and compromises wrought by their having to earn an honest living, they were completely justified in robbing banks and living like kings because this was all part of their war against the «lumpen bourgeoisie.» If their leaders lived the bourgeois life to the full – with country houses, private schools for their children and meals in expensive restaurants – this was because it was the perfect cover for them to operate in secret among the enemy. (Similarly, the Saudi and other hijackers used the American flight schools, the lax security at American airports and the explosive potential of American passenger planes to rain utter destruction on American heads.) Al Qaeda’s targeting of the World Trade Center was obviously based on the symbolism of the Twin Towers, as well as the fact that, as targets go, it was easier to fly planes into them than into anything else. The fact that there were more than 20,000 people in those two buildings at that time was part of what made the target attractive. It did not matter who would die, it mattered only that the deaths be many and the enemy hurt. So, given the difference in scale, both Al Qaeda and November 17 were driven by the symbolic strength of their actions. And it is this harnessing of the force of metaphor which gives both groups – and any other which tries to force a greater power to submit to its will – a strength way beyond its means. The pain that this provokes in the body that is stricken can lead to a reaction that may lead to the destruction of the agent that caused it. Bin Laden and his former host, Mullah Omar, have failed in their stated aim of bringing about the destruction of America. The September 11 attacks did not bring about an apocalyptic clash between the West and Islam. If humanity does not play its cards right this could still happen, but bin Laden did not manage to stir the Islamic masses into revolution. Instead, he is either dead or living in a cave somewhere. If he is alive, he and his followers might bring about more acts of destruction, but they have awoken America and other countries to the danger that they pose, and this will lead, sooner or later, to the destruction of Al Qaeda. November 17 also failed in its stated aim of getting the Americans out of Greece, the Turks out of Cyprus and Greece out of NATO and the EU. In fact, all they did was lead to greater cooperation between Greece and those forces that November 17 had declared war on. When it pushed its luck too far, with the murder of the British defense attache just four years before the Olympics, it managed to end the apathy with which its actions had been treated. This brought about the arrest of most (if not all) of November 17’s members and the impending crackdown on members of other smaller or even defunct groups. So what did these groups achieve? Al Qaeda’s aim is to drive the «infidel» out of Saudi Arabia and replace the current regime. In addition, it spares a thought for the Palestinians, the highly charged issue of the Middle East. Achieving these ends in Saudi Arabia itself, however, is difficult. Because those trying to bring them about are very likely to find themselves under the executioner’s sword. The «solution» to this, then, is to attack the perceived sponsor of the Saudi regime, the United States. Making America hurt, in other words, is expected to bring about the desired result in Saudi Arabia or Palestine. Whether this works or not, the terrorists have hijacked the causes of others. November 17, in its proclaimed effort to bring about a «revolution,» or at least to influence domestic and foreign policy, chose to hurt what it perceived as Greece’s enemies, exploited public opinion by trying to tie its actions with emotive issues (such as killing the defense attache of a NATO country to protest the 1999 Kosovo war). Its leaders’ true aim, if their proclamations are to be believed, was to play a political role in the country. But as its extremist ideas would have no luck in our political system, November 17 (like Al Qaeda in Saudi Arabia) chose to make its presence felt by hurting its country in other ways. Both terrorist organizations appeared to be fully convinced that the United States is the dominant force in their own countries, the one with the power to change everything. The United States is blamed for what it is perceived to have done and not done. This is the fate of superpowers and it is part of public discourse where democracy and institutions are shaky. Perhaps only when the citizens of countries plagued by terrorism feel they have the power to make a difference will they shout down those who dare to speak in their name. In Greece, for too long after the dictatorship fell, November 17 enjoyed the guilty silence of those who did not unite to demand an end to terrorism. This allowed more victims to be killed and more young people to be destroyed by joining the gang. Today, as the self-confessed members of November 17 themselves declare, there is no future for such a group. Elsewhere, it is not clear when democracy, tolerance, education and confidence will drain the swamps that feed terror.