OPINION

Cruel crimes, unusual punishment

The past week has shown that nothing is going to be easy in the war against terrorism, suggesting that the rapid collapse of November 17 had lulled everyone into a false sense that the issue was almost closed and that all we were waiting for was the wrapping up of evidence against members of other urban guerrilla groups. After that we could all get on with dealing with the real challenges facing the country at the dawn of the 21st century. Not only had 17 suspects of November 17 been arrested, but almost all had confessed to being members of the gang. Many had even helped police in their investigations, giving names of accomplices and details of attacks. The confessions had been backed up by physical evidence and witnesses. Things could not get any clearer or cleaner. And then, things got complicated by the fact that some of the suspects had denied everything while another, Dimitris Koufodinas, who is believed to have been November 17’s chief of operations, declared grandiosely that he accepted only «political responsibility» for the group’s actions. This, at long last, gave sympathizers who had been numbed by the speed of November 17’s collapse, time to regroup and room to maneuver. Immediately, the denials were presented in the light of that most basic of democratic rights – the presumption of innocence. The suspect who did not confess could shelter in the safe haven provided by the law. This is as it should be and is as close to a guarantee as we can get that the innocent awaiting trial will not be punished for crimes they did not commit. But we have also seen from many a trial that those who deny everything will soon have others making excuses for them, presenting them as victims of a conspiracy because of their political bent. Usually, the defendant will say that he is paying for his pro-Palestinian and anti-American views, the two pillars on which leftist and right-wing thinking here have been based for at least 30 years. The strength of this line of defense is that the mainstream news media have often presented anti-Americanism and, to a lesser extent, support for the Palestinians, as basic components of right-minded political thinking. So someone who presents his or her actions as dictated by anti-Americanism, anti-imperialism, anti-capitalism or anti-Turkey, immediately believes he has claimed the high ground, irrespective of his actions. Recent days suggest that we are in for lots of this. The week was dominated by the effort by Savvas Xeros, the injured bomber whose statements to police set off the spate of arrests that broke November 17’s back, to undermine his own confessions. In three interviews with Alpha television journalists on Saturday, Sunday and Monday (using a prison pay phone) Xeros tried to hit all the right keys. He claimed that he had been given mind-altering drugs in order to confess and had also been threatened by gun-toting officials that he would be shot in such a way as to make it appear a suicide. (It would be interesting to see how the cops would have explained how someone in the intensive care unit could get hold of a gun and shoot himself, but Xeros was not asked to explain his rationale on this.) Xeros, of course, also claimed that «American agents» had been in his hospital room when he had tricked everyone into believing that he could not see (despite the very real damage to his eyes – a detached retina in one and a cataract in the other). Xeros did not deny the contents of his confessions, but he tried to portray them as the result of torture. Obviously, he was trying to restore his honor (or «wounded dignity» as he had said in an earlier comment) and to portray himself as a victim rather than a snitch. This followed the declarations by Koufodinas after he surrendered to police, in which he said that for «a revolutionary» like himself, «dignity is all.» Savvas Xeros’s story is rich in tragic irony: This icon painter was nearly blinded, and the hand with which he shot people and painted saints has been transformed into an ugly claw; he is the only suspected member of November 17 to get a slight dose of his own medicine, being injured by the bomb that he was preparing to plant; those treating him had said that he had seemed relieved to have been caught and had wanted to get his story off his chest, yet now that he is with his brothers he feels the need to backtrack; because of his life-threatening injuries, he was perhaps the only suspected November 17 member who could be justified for having confessed his crimes. Everything, in other words, was going as well as could be expected under the circumstances, until Savvas tried to set things right. His telephone calls raised a storm, including virulent denials from the hospital that had saved his life and contempt by the police. All the November 17 suspects had their telephone rights curtailed. And, more importantly, Xeros managed to put across an image of November 17’s actions and personalities that helped confirm our suspicions. In one interview he was asked why he had killed people. «So that some things could come to light which would otherwise have got barely a mention in newspapers,» he replied. In short, November 17’s members chose victims and killed them in order to make a point. This then, in the thinking of November 17’s members, makes the crime political, because it was arbitrary and even more senseless than most. There was nothing personal in it. «I am not bloodthirsty. Murder was not committed for the sake of murder. In other words, you could say after much thought and much study, that this ought to be done. You have no hatred for him (i.e. the victim), but love for something else,» Xeros told television reporter Makis Triandafyllopoulos. Consider a young woman’s memory of hearing of her father’s murder on the school bus radio, when she was 13. Or another young woman, who says she doesn’t know what she was deprived of because she grew up without a father and can’t say what it’s like to have one. How big was Savvas’s love for that «something else» that gave them the right to destroy the lives of others? For those who want to know more about the unbearable love that these dark souls wanted to share with the world via the blood-soaked front pages of newspapers, Kaktos publications have just come up with November 17’s collected works, a full 925 pages of proclamations, from the one that followed the murder of CIA station chief Richard Welch in December 1975. It is a sobering thought that many of these often incoherent, always narcissistic texts were prepared and sharpened like weapons of death and defamation while their 23 unwitting victims went about the brief remainder of their lives, making other plans. It is also strange to remember that the man who is believed to have written these countless pages, Alexandros Yotopoulos, is in Korydallos Prison, denying all knowledge of them and of November 17. As Xeros put it: «Yotopoulos had this position from the start: That we should all deny everything. But from the moment that we all shouldered our responsibility, he should have done the same… To accept us as his children, at least.» Xeros, who «betrayed» his comrades and then «shouldered his responsibility,» accuses Yotopoulos of betraying the others, turning his back on the youngsters whom he led into lives of crime. Yotopoulos’s line of defense isolates him from his former acolytes. In the end he will have nothing left, but the words that he denies writing. These people thrived in the shadows, dictating their views from a safe distance. It is so ironic that now they are pinned under the lights of television, examined in every painful, personal detail by pop psychologists. Innocent or guilty, November 17’s suspects face a terrible punishment: becoming tacky TV celebrities and destroying each other. Similarly, the surest way to deal with them would be to slip a pistol into the prison and let them sort things out themselves. But the death sentence has been abolished. They can call it an act of love.