Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Violence at the Acropolis

Protesters at the Acropolis have "tarnished the image of the country globally," said Prime Minister George Papandreou. Yet the images were both depressing and heartening. Depressing because there is nothing Periclean about the riot police clashing with protesters in Athens' "Holy Hill." But heartening too because here is a government willing to govern. In a country where mobs spend more time protesting than working, the government's resolve could mean that legislation passed will be legislation implemented.

The Greeks have a healthy aversion to state-sponsored violence. For the left, in particular, the riot police are the offspring of paramilitary groups that chased "dissenters" in the 1960s and 1970s. For those who grew up in the "Metapolitefsi"(after 1974) and never experienced that period, they are reminded annually on November 17 of the brutality of a state that turned its tanks against students who merely wanted a voice in their future. This anti-government bias in terms of violence means that mobs who despoil the city are as likely to be criticized as the police officers charged to stop them. Damned if you do, damned if you don't.

In fact, the largest protest since 1974 came in December 2008 after a police officer murdered in cold blood a 15-year-old boy. People protested around the country and around the clock against police brutality, although as time went on, the grievances invoked to justify protesting grew. There is nothing wrong with such protests - the police can be and often is brutal. But where are those same crowds to protest against the routine November 17 riots that turn downtown Athens into a wasteland?

Aversion to violence can easily degenerate into lawlessness. A people that too easily welcome violence are as doomed as one that disavow it categorically. Soccer matches where hooligans consider clashing with the police to be as central to the match-going experience as rooting for their team; successive governments tolerating violent protests; and a permissive attitude towards the most serious terrorist organization that operated in Greece until it "lost touch with popular feelings" – Greece’s problem is equally too little state violence as too much.

A state that cannot use violence to enforce its will is not a state. Unable to control crowds, the state confronts its own narrow legitimacy. A state built on patronage alone cannot take an anti-populist stance because it has no higher principle on which to stand. If there is no broader agenda, no higher consensus on what is acceptable and what not, the state wavers aimlessly between the inability to either lead the mob or to control it. Most recently, three people paid for that inability with their lives at the Downtown branch of the Marfin Egnatia Bank on May 5, 2010, in an act that the political elites denounced with a whisper rather than a shout.

People have a right to protest, just as the state has the right to maintain the peace. The use of violence is not, in itself, the question, and certainly not the basis upon which to condemn an act as "tarnishing the image of the country." Greece’s image should be to convince Greeks and foreigners alike that change will not be held hostage at the hands of this or that group of hooligans willing to fight in order to maintain the prerogatives that brought Greece to the brink of bankruptcy in the first place. There is a time for debate and a time for decisions. And if the state - and society overall - is not willing to stand up and fight for that, then we might as well give up now.

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