Rogue lions in the suburbs
Difficult times inspire strange feelings, where the only difference between fact and fiction in our world of unreality is that we do not have the option of closing the book or walking out of the movie – because it has taken control of us. What could be more unreal than the reality of passenger planes destroying giant office buildings and all those in them in New York; of terrorists bombs blowing up a nightclub in Bali, killing over a hundred visitors and destroying Indonesia’s tourist industry; of heavily armed separatists on a suicide mission taking more than 700 people hostage in a Moscow theater? What could be more unreal (yet somehow predictable and banal) than the reality of two snipers terrorizing the well-to-do suburbs of Washington the way two rogue lions terrorized the Tsavo region in East Africa in 1898, killing more than 100 workers and stopping work on a railway line before they were tracked down and shot by Lt. Col. John Henry Patterson of the British army? The difference here is that the rogues were not in their own territory, but in the victims’ neighborhood. Reality today is the fevered zone between our worst dreams and our waking to the fact that the monsters are in the room when our eyes are open. The World Trade Center, the Bali bombing, the attempt to blow a plane up over the Atlantic last year, the snipers and the Moscow theater all work toward making our world much more unpredictable and dangerous than we were accustomed to. We had come to accept the fact that the world’s superpowers owned enough nuclear weapons to destroy the earth, but we did not expect these smaller, arbitrary invasions of our own, familiar space to become our new reality. The most natural response to the return of the primordial fear that death can be as sudden and arbitrary as it was for our Neanderthal brothers is to shrink back into our cave and roll up behind a defensive wall. The inclination is natural for nations as well as for individuals. In both cases we embrace the irrational hope that isolation will make the threats disappear. But, as we have been shocked to realize, reality tends to catch up with you. For individuals, isolation is not only a terrible price to pay for security; it is also nothing less than the laying down of the best weapons that we have – knowledge and social unity. The Washington snipers caused schools to close and people to stop doing the most mundane of things, such as pumping gas into their cars. The whole region was gripped by the pursuit of the mysterious killers as it played out on television. Reality and television became one, with the local police chief responding live on television to a message left at the scene of a crime by the sniper or snipers. Much of the eyewitness testimony turned out to be false, as was the conjecture by expert «profilers» – such as that the killer had to be an angry white loner, when the alleged killers were two black men, one of whom was a Muslim convert and Al Qaeda sympathizer. So people stopped living normal lives and, glued to their television sets, filled their heads with erroneous and potentially deadly information. The mixing of the real world with the world of television turned into a dangerous cocktail – especially because of the false comfort provided by the false communality of television. We all watch the same thing, but we watch it alone. We may all be informed or misinformed at the same time but we are not united, the way we would be in a community hall where we could demand answers to difficult questions and perhaps contribute toward an effective plan of action or, at least, understand just how little the authorities may know and, therefore, come to our own conclusions regarding the danger. Primitive peoples knew how important the community is for the individual. For the Bushmen of southern Africa, for example, the greatest punishment would be to expel a criminal from the tribe, casting him adrift in a universe where everything was part of a glorious whole – everything but he. Now even the games on television with which we kill time have become a parody of the unreal nature of our reality. These survival-type games have become known as «reality» television, when they are the very opposite of reality and all they have done is usurp our own social relationships and throw back a false version at us. Up to about 20 years ago, people in Greece would talk about each other and their extended family and friends. This interest was first hijacked by the characters of internationally popular daily soap operas and now by «everyday people» in an artificial world. The players are deprived of outside influences while viewers are granted the illusion of voyeuristic omnipresence. This is fraud on a grand scale, because depriving players of outside influences and of the societal institutions which have been developed over millennia to solve problems between individuals is like throwing them into a pit in which survival resembles variations of gladiatorial combat between them. This is more artificial than fiction, because in fiction you have a single mind’s effort to present insights into reality whereas «reality» television takes real people and strips them down to a one-dimensional core, creating something that has no relation to reality. The bigger problem, though, is that television news bulletins and analyses are often out of context, biased or just plain wrong. But people often have no alternatives to turn to because such is the power of television that many newspaper commentators gain their understanding of the world through television or through their proximity to sources (such as politicians) whose eye is on the television audience and whose own outlook is governed by this. Often, then, we do not get an alternative opinion to the one on television but a subdivision of the same distorted knowledge. Even when people do get off the couch, come out of hiding and participate in collective events, such as going on holiday to a tropical paradise or attending a play in Moscow, they too may become simple figures in the deadly games of reality. There can be no greater irony than the fact that hundreds of people attending an escapist musical should be held hostage by some 50 Chechen men and women determined to die to promote their cause – an end to the war in their homeland. However noble the rebels might have thought their cause, their actions led only to greater sorrow. The real, in other words, overtook the fiction on the stage, creating a tragedy greater than any playwright could. Add to this the further horror of at least 119 hostages being killed by the tranquilizer gas that the Russian security forces pumped into the auditorium and which allowed them to save those hostages that they did. In almost every instance, the violence is bred from violence, especially when problems are allowed to fester – when they are not solved and their poison radicalizes and inspires those few who feel they have nothing to lose and only heroism to gain by destroying themselves in a strike at their perceived enemies. Close to home, we saw a relatively harmless yet telling example of what happens when problems are not tackled with determination. Greece’s soccer hooligans have grown so impudent that (as in their jeering during a minute’s silence for the victims of terrorism a few days after the September 11 attacks) they have sometimes shown a very ugly face which to many – who may not know better – might be seen as the face of Greece. Team owners and managers have done nothing to control these thugs, to the extent that the regular fights between fanatics have managed to empty the stadiums of fans, depriving teams of cash and leading to the present impasse. And when the hooligans get to play to an international audience they waste no chance. Foreign Minister George Papandreou found this out the hard way when, on Thursday, before an historic match in Istanbul between Panathinaikos and Turkish soccer team Fenerbahce, he and his Turkish counterpart decided to walk around the pitch to show that at least they would not isolate themselves and allow problems between their two countries to fester as they had for decades. But they reckoned without some of the 1,500 Panathinaikos fans who showered them with chairs, bottles and yogurt drinks, forcing them to turn tail. The thugs might be few, but they are real and they have a way of hijacking events. That is why unless the Greeks do something to take back their stadiums, they will see soccer only on TV.