Wednesday, December 24, 2008

The Greek Riots: Anomic Youths, Headless Government

By Cornelia Tsakiridou

Greece is a country that takes great pride in its long history and rightly so. But it is also a nation where myths crafted over centuries rule unchallenged. The December 6, 2008 death in Athens of 15-year-old Alexandros Gregoropoulos by police fire triggered riots and mayhem throughout the country and caused protests in some of its embassies and consulates abroad.

As the riots continue, three myths are dominating public perception: that those in positions of authority cannot be trusted; that the rebellious and poor have a monopoly on justice; and that problems facing the nation are caused by obscure international enemies and their domestic operatives.

With banks, police stations, and businesses burned to the ground, Molotov bombs on steady supply, and banner-carrying students, many underage, claiming revolutionary authority--e.g., forcing their way into a national TV station (NET), the chairman of which, Christos Panagopoulos, politely complained "this goes beyond any limit"--a docile Greek public seems to have embraced the premise that youthful rebellion is justified and even admirable.

As a result, the country's middle and higher education system has been seriously disrupted, with classes suspended and over 600 schools and 150 university departments and buildings remaining under student occupation. In Athens and elsewhere, new recruits in protests and occupations include schoolchildren.

The spectacle of young people (and assorted criminals, leftwing extremists, and self-proclaimed anarchists) on a smash-and-burn spree wrapping themselves in the mantle of justice, martyrdom, and victimhood is only rivaled by that of a government incapable of making a clear and effective distinction between political grievance and thuggery, lawlessness and the rule of law.

Despite attempts in the national and international press (among them Le Monde and The Guardian) to give a deeper dimension to the Greek riots and to offer a mix of elaborate psychological and sociological explanations, the truth may actually be rather plain. The riots happened because the legal mechanisms designed to protect the public interest remained idle.

The reasons are not difficult to surmise. First, in Greece the public domain is the designated arena of political and personal advancement. Thus, except in rhetoric, there is effectively no concept of public interest to uphold and defend. There have been no counter-demonstrations demanding that the violence, looting, and destruction stop because they are against the public good.

Second, many in the public apparently sympathize with the rioters' stance that state corruption justifies state disruption. Third, an increasing number of Greeks across the political spectrum believe that the riots are the result of sinister foreign designs too powerful for any Greek government to deter.

The death of Gregoropoulos was neither sinister nor symptomatic of systemic police brutality, but what preceded it was clearly against the public interest. The police claim that the boy was part of a group of about 30 youths that attacked them with rocks and petrol bombs and that he was killed when a bullet fired in the air was deflected and hit him in the chest--a version that according to the accused officers' attorney is supported by yet-to-be released forensic tests.

The son of an affluent family and a former student at an exclusive Athens high school, Gregoropoulos was allegedly loitering with friends at Exarcheia, a neighborhood notorious for its disaffected youth, rogue anarchists, and drug addicts, where taunting the police is a popular sport and where only last month angered residents came out to protest the lack of police action. Whether he was actively involved in the events that led to the shooting, or was merely an unlucky bystander remains to be determined. This in the end may matter little.

In Greece, facts are not favored in political rhetoric and reportage. Ideology and political fiction offer a more certain and rewarding picture, and the demand for both is high. The state of mind that leads one to believe that the 9/11 attacks were the sinister work of the American government--as many Greeks adamantly believe--will easily conclude that Gregoropoulos' death was a cold-blooded murder with an elaborate cover-up already in the works.

As with the 2006 forest fires (reputed to be the work of arsonists from neighboring countries), conspiracy theories are fueling speculation about the riots' being part of wider plots to destabilize Greece--something that the country's governing parties have been doing quite admirably on their own for decades. True to the spirit of conspiracy, no clear picture has emerged about who the rioters are, based on arrest records and other information. The designation "the familiar strangers," or "the hooded ones," accords them the operative status that justifies what many in the public want to hear.

But statements like "we have decided to storm only big businesses, chain stores and banks and not small businesses, because they are everyday workers" (James Hider, The Times, December 13, 2008) and a teenager's resolution that "Athens must burn, especially the banks" (Matthew Campbell, The Sunday Times, December 14, 2008) suggest an increasingly emboldened attitude. Athens Institute for Training and Vocational Guidance (IEKEP) institute director Penelope Stathakopoulos told The Guardian's Ian Traynor that "a lot of these kids believe in zero." Myths become especially powerful when the social order breaks down and the instruments of law are demonized.

In scenes reminiscent of the Intifada, rock-throwing youths in masks and headscarves proclaimed Gregoropoulos a martyr who would live forever in his people's memory. A black-clad crowd of 6,000 attended his funeral, including hundreds of high school students accompanied by teachers. TV cameras and reporters stood by to register the unfolding national drama and attribute it in somber tones to the profound anxiety suffered by youth uncertain about their future and traumatized by Greece's failing government and its corruption.

Resorting to Delphic platitudes historically favored by Greece's ever-vigilant left and aimed especially at gullible young ears, protesters' signs declared the need for "schools not bombs," and charged the Greek state with killing its young--"bullets for your youth, money for your banks."

On the sixth day of the riots, this cheap rhetoric once again proved successful: emboldened high school students attacked newspapers and police buildings in and around Athens and in major cities. A day later, young men armed with crowbars attacked the office of the accused officers' attorney and, after smashing everything on site, walked out of the building undisturbed.

Faced from the start with widespread media condemnation and calls by socialist (PASOK) and radical left (SYRIZA) opposition parties for Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis' resignation and early elections, the conservative (New Democracy) government rushed to issue apologies, effectively putting its political survival above the accused officers' right to a fair trial and the rule of law. Police were subsequently ordered to use minimum force, and the embattled Interior Minister declared the primacy of human life over property, a statement that certainly resonated with looters and vandals all over the country.

The rioters, who are so far winning the game, are taking advantage of a powerful tool that the Greek state has put at their disposal. They may rest, go online, and replenish their arsenal at public expense by taking shelter in university buildings protected by an asylum law that bans
police from entering unless authorized by university officials. Student sit-ins and patrols that control entrance into facilities are a common sight during occupations, while the absence of a quorum in student meetings virtually ensures that extremists will monopolize action in the name of the majority.

Two years ago, in the summer of 2006, Karamanlis tried to end the constitutional protection of university grounds as part of reform legislation intended to salvage the country's deteriorating high education institutions. The response was predictable. Ten thousand mostly leftwing students clashed with police, some breaking into the Athens Law School. Across the country, university buildings and department were occupied and police were attacked with gasoline bombs and furniture. The government lost; the extremists won.

The federation of university professors (POSDEP) argued at the time that the proposed reforms, among them provisions to establish private universities and restrict matriculation and examination times (currently students may take a decade to finish their degree), would devalue and commercialize state degrees. It was a bizarre warning given the poor showing of Greek universities in international rankings (only two universities make the lower end in the Shanghai listing of the world's best 500 universities), an accomplishment for which the professors should collectively take credit.

Karamanlis and his then Education Minister Marietta Yiannakou underestimated entrenched political and economic interests in the academy and public education sector and the influence of Greece's radical left on student organizations. Had the legislation become law in 2006, the events of this December might never have taken place, at least on this scale.

Since the riots began, discussion of endemic corruption and related social ills has dominated editorials in the Greek press as many experts and political personalities have rushed to interpret the behavior of the rioters, who are purportedly rebelling to correct the failures of adults. But punditry of this kind rarely raises real issues like making parents (if they can be identified) accountable to the full extent of the law for damages incurred by their children or sending the bill to radical left parties whose members unabashedly proclaim the need for perpetual revolution and destruction of the establishment, even though their leadership is among the country's wealthiest citizens.

The total cost of the riots to the Greek state is still hard to determine, since they are far from over. Currently (Dec. 18), damages to businesses are estimated to have reached over 200 million euros, while the disruption of the country's lucrative tourist industry is likely to last beyond this coming summer. With the largest account deficit in the Eurozone, one fifth of its population under the poverty line, rising unemployment particularly among youth, and a global crisis soon to hit hard on all sectors of the economy, this is the last thing that Greece--or any country--would wish upon itself.

As the majority of New Democracy supporters have conceded in recent polls, blame falls squarely on the Karamanlis government for failure to restore law and order and maneuver
conniving opposition parties, PASOK and especially the radical left SYRIZA (whose hand in the riots is all but certain) into a show of unity. But even if against all odds Karamanlis proves resilient and survives this crisis, the mindset that made it possible and the dangers it poses for
the country's internal security and stability will persist.

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