The Greek approach to tragedy
Helena Smith in Athens
Tuesday September 25, 2001
In the birthplace of democracy, the right to demonstrate is viewed as a hallowed tradition. In the wake of the assault on America, the Greeks have been living up to that time-honoured practice with outbursts of anti-Americanism by protestors who chant that Uncle Sam had it coming.
Last week, around 30,000 Athenian football fans attending a Uefa match against Scotland jeered throughout the minute’s silence held in honour of the terror victims. The doughty Scots looked on aghast as the fans then tried to burn the Stars and Stripes in the stalls.
This week, leftist groups and labour organisations will gather in front of the neo-classical fa?ade of Athens University for a rally “against war”, although the event is already being billed as another chance to kick American ass.
“What goes round, comes round,” says one student, Philippos Papadopoulos, wistfully. “A lot of people died and that’s a pity, but the Americans are getting a taste of what they did in Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia and the like.”
International polls show the Greeks to be by far the least sympathetic of all European nations to post-attack America. Scarcely had the dust settled over the wreckage of the Twin Towers before some were saying the terrorist acts were both understandable and justifiable.
Echoing Papadopoulos, surprising numbers say they see the carnage as a classic case of retribution for all the wrongs committed over the decades by the Superpower.
Of all the Euro-Alliance nations, polls have also shown the Greeks to be the least willing to take any action against countries harbouring terrorists.
Among the many ills that Hellenes cite is America’s failure to pressure some 35,000 Turkish troops to withdraw from Cyprus, 27 years after Ankara invaded and seized the island’s northern third in response to an Athens-inspired coup.
That failure, they snort, is a perfect example of “American double-standards”. The reaction is mirrored in Cyprus, where one in four Greek Cypriots told the Politis newspaper last weekend that the Americans “deserved” to be targeted.
In private, Greek Cypriots will even go so far as to suggest that Osama Bin Laden, the Saudi-born militant and suspected mastermind of the attacks, had been driven to act “out of despair” over America’s misguided policies in the Middle East.
“What you hear, all this logic of ‘let’s excuse them’ is absolutely shameful,” said one Greek Cypriot civil servant, who went out of her way to contribute to the New York Firemen Victims’ Fund to “let them know that not all of us think like that”.
By contrast, the governments in Athens and Nicosia have also given support to Washington with public pledges to help stamp out the “the terrorist scourge” even though, in the the case of Greece, Prime Minister Costas Simitis has said Greek troops will avoid participating in any Nato-led action.
Instead, Athens has offered to provide military facilities and airspace, while Cyprus has hinted it “won’t interfere” with the Alliance making use of the two British Sovereign bases on the Near Eastern island.
It was a balancing act that both leaderships were forced to follow during the Nato bombardment of Serbia in 1999. Then, Greeks and Greek Cypriots had opposed the action against their Orthodox co-religionists by an overwhelming 92 and 97 % respectively.
In trying to understand the unusual – some would say heartless – attitude of the Greeks and Greek Cypriots, analysts point to their delicate position as citizens of two Christian buffer states at the crossroads of the East and West.
But as the home of the November 17 group – described by the US State Department as the most dangerous terrorist group currently operating in the West – Greece is also regarded as Europe’s weak link in the fight against terrorism.
In the 26 years since it emerged not one member of the elusive, extreme-left organisation has ever been captured. Nor have there been any credible leads, although 22 people have been assassinated – most recently Brig. Stephen Saunders, the British defence attach? – and hundreds wounded in that time.
During the Gulf War, Greece stood out as a haven of terrorist activities with innumerable attacks against Western targets.
The embarrassing displays of anti-Americanism from a fellow Nato member have as much to do with the perceived fear of Washington now exerting “unbearable” pressure to root out November 17, analysts say.
Highlighting the concern, Jaques Rogges, the recently-elected president of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) arrived in the Greek capital last night to discuss ways of how best to bolster security during the world’s most cherished sporting event.