The Week in Review

While the world gears up for war, our government is involved in a more bitter quarrel than usual with the main opposition party and a large part of the judiciary over, of all things, the national land register. It is deliciously ironic that as the world passes bleeding through the now-collapsed gate of the World Trade Center’s twin towers, entering a new era in which everything is possible, from a spiraling fall to continuous confrontation and destruction to a concerted effort to solve the challenges faced by clashing ideologies, outdated religions and the gap between the many poor and the fewer rich, Greece is caught up in a battle to draw up (or, rather, to start drawing up) a registry of land ownership. Greece and Albania are the only countries in Europe not to have such a register. Yet at the same time, many Greeks are fanatical about their ownership of their land, down to the last inch, and are ready to kill their neighbor or their brother if he steps on their turf. Nevertheless, Greeks profess to know everything and can solve every other person’s and nation’s problem – as long as they themselves are unaffected. We saw this moment of truth coming a few years back, when Greece secured the right to host the 2004 Olympics. There we realized that with strategic planning, hard work, and good old charm we could get what we wanted, after failing miserably with the claim that we deserved the 1996 Olympics. As we have noted before (and every historian before us), the Greeks are great at second acts. (First we have to mess things up, though, so we can work out the tensions in our system and so the one side can tell the – inevitable – other, I told you so.) And then we fell back on our sense of entitlement again. Now, with time running out, we are trying to get back to work again, but charm alone does not turn earth nor build stadiums. And we are again hearing whispers of the same old whining that has plagued this nation and its people’s thinking for too long. We are but a small country… some officials say. It is as if we want to be judged on some scale of relativity that we will set up. But we don’t have the room to be better than what one might expect of us. We have the ability and the obligation to be nothing but the best, at least as far as the Olympic Games are concerned. In these troubled times, Greece has the added obligation of stepping out in front of the world and declaring, We are all in the war against terrorism, against whatever threatens our world. Each country and each person will work to ensure humanity’s victory. Our task is to make sure that in 2004 the whole world will celebrate with the Victory Games. We want the violent and the selfish to know there is no place for them in the stadium; we want the poor to know that there is hope, that they are among us, that there is a place at the table, that we will help them be stronger, that they will have a voice. Remember, 2004 is just under three years away. Be there. We hear none of this. We, who have nothing to offer but vision, make no effort to have one. Instead, in almost a grotesque satire of our ills, the public works minister (who is responsible for most of the Olympic projects with the greatest delays) concentrates mostly on fighting a war on the scandalously expensive failure of his ministry’s efforts to set up a land register as he engineers his departure to become secretary-general of the ruling PASOK party. The government, in turn, accuses the New Democracy party and the judiciary of being in cahoots in order to hurt the government and minister Costas Laliotis specifically. Many of our obsessions and weaknesses are tied up in this knot of incompetence, delays, petty politics, disrespect for institutions, and, worst of all, great schemes gone wrong. The land register was intended to solve the huge problems created by the greatly subjective view of who owns what. If it had succeeded, it would have been as if Greeks had discovered a new theory of relativity, where things were objective and not relative to themselves. (We might as well try to discover the perpetual motion machine.) The land register might be beyond rescue, but the Olympics remain our one last chance. We will still have our land and another chance to record what belongs to whom, but we will never have another opportunity to be the navel of the world again. To succeed we must realize that this is our second chance and there will be no other. Know thyself Much has been said about the way the Greeks are seen to have reacted to the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington. This would have been irrelevant in the current cosmogony had this image not appeared so strongly in the United States in the days of greatest horror and had it not deeply wounded the feelings of our friends and relatives in America. There are many, complicated reasons as to why that impression was given. The effect however, was not complicated: It was seen as a lack of compassion. But it may have more to do with a bizarre lack of comprehension. The magnitude of the slaughter in New York, and the simplicity of the motive of those who want to destroy America and have the dedication to attempt it, did not sink in here the way they most certainly did in America. Here we are famously – or infamously – self-absorbed. We are focused on the individual. And that individual is usually nobody but our self. Each one of us is the measure of all things. This is the passion that drives us; this is the image that is fed back to us by our television and our newspapers – the image of ourselves seeing things the way we see things; we see the wrongs done to us in monumental terms and the wrongs done to others as something for debate. We claim to be the heirs of a great history, but we seem to keep the pettiness that proves our ties with our ancestors in their weakest moments without synthesizing the knowledge into an understanding of how nations function or how history works. Being the older kids on the block, we might have realized that for a much younger nation like America, at a time when instant communications heighten sensitivities and speed up conclusions, the Manhattan holocaust is the equivalent of the historical events that have shaken Greece in the past. The death of 6,000 or 7,000 people may look different on the grand scale of history with, for example, the Asia Minor catastrophe or the 27-year-old Turkish occupation of part of Cyprus. But today, in America, it is the earth-shattering event that has changed the nation’s history in the same way that past travails have shaken us. None of these events are to be trifled with or rationalized. And the greatest, inexcusable failure of those who create the public’s image – the chatterboxes on talk shows and the news executives who invite them – is that in many ways we are Americans. Not in the symbolic I am a Berliner sense but in the blood ties, in the fact that whether or not we have direct relatives in America, three million Americans are of Greek descent. They feel their ties to Greece very strongly. But perhaps they never really understood the Greeks – that when the Greeks accuse the Americans of being self-absorbed it is usually because the Americans seem to be less absorbed in the Greeks than the Greeks in themselves. Now Greek Americans and other friends of Greece are hurt and disillusioned. They have been enraged by the picture of soccer hooligans trying to burn the American flag and jeering during the minute’s silence in honor of the victims of the terrorist attacks; they have grabbed the view of every extremist in Greece as if that were the official position or the way most people feel. But they have also been shaken by findings of opinion polls that reveal, for example, that about 86 percent of those asked are against American retaliation for the terrorist attacks. In all these instances, the Greeks are to blame for not presenting the opposite picture, for not going to the trouble to show that beyond trying to rationalize and to equivocate everything, they know their feelings, they know which side they are on and they know how to express all this. Do the opinion polls ask Are you in favor of war? or do they ask: Do you think terrorists should get away with killing 6,000 people because they feel like doing it? Do you think that if the terrorists are not punished they will stop carrying out such attacks? Can anything explain or justify the horrific death of 6,000 people at their desks and the decades of immeasurable sorrow that their families have been condemned to, with most of them never receiving even a scrap of a body to weep over, to bury? Is this what our pollsters ask? If they did, perhaps we would wake up to our feelings, and see the terrorist plague for what it is. Because this is the greatest sorrow: That at this apocalyptic time, when everything that we knew is up in the air and it is up to us and everyone else to determine whether it will land in a form somewhat like it was before or in an unrecognizable heap, we should face the deluge by picking at our navels. Because being awake to the challenges that we are both blessed and cursed to face right now would allow us to draw on the resources that have always, until now, made the Greeks great in adversity and made them allies to depend on. But the issue goes beyond the national. As the great armada sails into striking distance of Afghanistan, satellites roam over a wasteland searching for a grain of sand in a desert and armies of secret agents race over letters and leads, trying to flush out the hidden perpetrators of the next ambush, each of us is experiencing a unique solitary stillness. Each of us is trying to work out what the future holds. How much of what we hold in our embrace will slip away like Eurydice when Orpheus turned to make sure that she was following him out of Hades? What is certain is that much of what we had is slipping away – from what we understood to be basically predictable human behavior, to the safety of our cities, homes and offices, to cheap and quick air travel, to what we next expected to buy, to what qualities comprise our nation’s character. Eurydice is gone. And the only thing that is certain is that we are turning to go back into hell, knowing neither when nor how we will return. Our only consolation is that we have each other and that if we do not lose the values that give our lives meaning, we will come out stronger and wiser. Greeks, Americans, Greek Americans, Pakistanis, Nigerians, Indians, Mozambicans, Chileans, Argentineans, Afghans, Australians, Austrians, Italians – if we learn to know ourselves we will know one another. Identify yourself Because knowing who we are and what to protect will be our only guide in the battles ahead. These days we are experiencing the calm before the storm. The brutality of this war tames the wildest fiction. What could be more surreal than those huge planes disappearing into the World Trade Center towers? What could be more grotesque than the knowledge that some 6,000 people, every single one of them in the prime of his or her life, at work, disappeared in a thunderous roar in which they were crushed and vaporized? This is a calamity so huge, so biblical in scale and mythological in its gravity that, even as the days go on and we become used to the gaping hole where the towers stood, we know that the repercussions will be even greater than we feared at the beginning. The first massive hole in our world was the one that opened up in the heavens of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, when we saw, for the first time, that hundreds of thousands of lives could be destroyed in a single moment by a single act. But somehow we got used to living with the danger, as if our lives were in the hands of people who could be counted on not to use such weapons of destruction again. Mutually Assured Destruction was a great deterrent. Now the enemy wants to die, destroying our sense of reality, our sense of balance, in the process. Now the old fear is back, compounded to the degree of our darkest imaginings. Already, one of the greatest changes we have felt is our change in the perspective of the value of human life and death. In a few minutes our whole sense of values, although not overturned in terms of what is right or wrong, good or evil, shifted enormously in terms of scale. Where once our sensibilities saw each life as sacrosanct, we now know that if a plane full of innocent passengers is hijacked it is better to shoot it down and guarantee their death than to risk the plane’s causing greater damage on the ground. Then there are grades of death. When the planes flew into the World Trade Center, we were stunned in the knowledge that in those brilliant flames and thick smoke hundreds of people, invisible to us, must be dead or dying or trapped and sentenced to death. But those massive, perfectly formed columns in the sky seemed impervious to further harm. Then we saw people fall. Each tiny form had its own horrifying, individual tale. At the other end of the earth we felt that we had to shout out, Wait, wait. Help will come. Because that was the world we had grown up in: Rescue would come if we held out long enough. But those poor souls who went to work in the morning and then suddenly found themselves with the choice of either jumping to their deaths – flying through clear air in a last, defiant gasp of life – or curling up and waiting for death to stamp upon them, knew what we were still to learn: They might have just as well been on the dark side of the moon for all the help anyone could offer them. And then those towers of light and pride and enterprise came down, compounding into ash and dust and scraps of lives and the shattered furniture of life. Each death, though greater than the sum of all the destruction, was insignificant in the face of this. The huge cloud of Armageddon billowed hard and relentlessly over Manhattan, and the only relief on that day of endless sorrow was that not everyone whom it touched died. We knew then that there are no more superheroes. The only heroes are mortal and they are among the first to die. The only consolation is that where a hero dies – a real one, not a suicide – a hundred will be born. Perhaps the presence of so much death will free us from the fear of death, and free us to wage war so that at least our children will grow up without the fear we feel today. Comment Terrorism as diplomacy by other means With terrorism now the dividing line between Us and the shadowy Them, and with the United States seeming to use this as its only criterion for judging friend from foe, parties in every dispute have tried to paint the others as terrorists in a bid to win favor with the United States and have their arguments noticed by the Western media. In our part of the world, Turkish-Cypriot leader Rauf Denktash was off the mark almost immediately after the September 11 attacks, declaring that the Greek Cypriots are terrorists and that the international community should not force the Turkish Cypriots to live under them. Denktash is an old master of exploiting the day’s news to paint the Greek Cypriots black. At the time of the Yugoslav wars, with their ethnic cleansing, he accused the Greek Cypriots of carrying out such forced removals – ignoring the fact that the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974 and the subsequent setting up of Denktash’s breakaway state in 1983 was the ultimate form of ethnic separation. Denktash has also opposed any inter-ethnic meetings on the island, declaring recently that people went to such meetings only to have sex. He gained a strong ally in the inexplicable R. James Woolsey, a former chief of the CIA who has made a second career out of making unsubstantiated charges against Greece and Cyprus of alleged collusion with terrorists. This time, on September 18, Woolsey declared that Cyprus was involved in Osama bin Laden’s money laundering and other financial schemes – notwithstanding the US State Department’s assurances that an international task force has found that Cyprus complies with all international standards against money laundering. Then the big guns stepped in. Last Sunday, Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit – who ordered the Turkish invasion – warned the European Union not to admit Cyprus as a member because, as he claimed, Corruption and money laundering are practiced in that country. Southern Cyprus is a risk for the security of the region… In the current atmosphere of a global wave of terrorism, our European friends who want to accept Cyprus within their fold should take into consideration this kind of activity by the Greek-Cypriot administration. This was a change from threatening annexation and other unspecified disasters in case of Cyprus’s EU accession. The Greek government shot back that it was the Turkish invaders and occupiers who were the true terrorists. On Tuesday (October 2), Turkey’s top soldier, Gen. Huseyin Kivrikoglu, dug up the old charge that Greece trained Kurdish terrorists at the Lavrion refugee camp near Athens (which is, in fact, run by the UNHCR and houses refugees in full sight of any visitor). He also remarked on Athens’s vain effort to find shelter for Kurdish rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan in 1999, who in Turkey is known as the leading terrorist. The Turkish propaganda against Cyprus has had little effect in helping Denktash’s cause. The Security Council, in a unanimous resolution on September 26, condemned him for refusing to resume negotiations with Cypriot President Glafcos Clerides on the future of the island. Denktash may find that the new international climate will mean that those in a position to influence the fate of smaller countries will have less time for histrionics and will push for solutions to these untidy regional problems. (On the other hand, such solutions usually breed further conflict, as shown by Britain’s romp through the Middle East and the peace treaties after the shaky start to the last century.) The Cypriot government has repaid the Turks in kind. Whether Mr. Ecevit likes it or not, Turkey and the occupied areas are a huge breeding ground for every type of terrorist activity and illegality, Interior Minister Christodoulos Christodoulou charged on Wednesday. The Americans and the Europeans are fully aware of this and so is Turkey, which is the main supplier of drugs to the entire West. This war of words can boomerang. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (whose people have consistently been targeted by terrorists and whom the Palestinians call a terrorist in turn), declared on Thursday that America should not conciliate the Arabs at our expense and urged the West not to pursue appeasement in the way of the countries that sacrificed Czechoslovakia to Hitler at the 1938 Munich conference. President Bush’s spokesman yesterday blasted these comments as being unacceptable in the president’s opinion, causing an almost unprecedented chill in relations between the two countries. Sticks and stones can break your bones, but protesting too much can get you into deeper trouble.

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