1 Μαΐου 2009

Facing up to the culture of violence

Δημοσιεύτηκε στο συλλογικό τόμο του Hellenic Observatory (London School of Economics) με τίτλο «The return of street politics? essays on the December riots in Greece» σε επιμέλεια Spyros Economides & Vassilis Monastiriotis (Μάιος 2009)

It is probablly too soon for a full understanding of what caused the events of December 2008. All I can offer is a random reflection on the state we in Greece find ourselves in, three months later.

A policeman who uses his regulation firearm to kill (cold-bloodedly, according to most accounts) a 15-year old only because the latter shouted abuse at him is obviously an exceptional case. However, the sense of impunity of our security forces, and their perception that they are above the law, is the rule. Not all of them are murderers, certainly. But it is true that the police too often acts with gratuitous brutality (e.g. when dealing with foreign immigrants), that corruption in their ranks is too diffuse, and above all that violent and/or corrupt policemen can always count on the complicity of their colleagues and superiors, as on the “understanding” of judges. Clearly, things are more complicated when there is a dead man (and as young as that), but a way to transform a life sentence at first grade into a mere three-year imprisonment on appeal can always be found. It has happenned before (in the mid-1980s). Why think it will be different this time?

The lack of trust in the willingness and the capacity of the high ranks of the security forces to punish the guilty and take all necessary measures to ensure that no such incidences happen again fits in the context of a more general lack of trust in institutions – all of them. A quick look at the front pages of our daily papers over the past two or three years leaves no doubt. Judges protecting organised crime. Priests, nay monks, going around by helicopter (“to save time”), clinching million euro deals (“for the benefit of our monasteries”), keeping millions on offshore accounts. And, obviously, ministers who use state funds as if these were their private property. A moral degradation never seen before – and all in the reign of a prime minister who came to power with the promise to defeat powerful interests (or literally, with his characteristic elegance, “to beat the pimps”).

To this cocktail, pretty explosive as it is, one ought to add the fact that for too many youths everyday life and future prospects are rather bleak. As shown by international comparisons, our teenagers study more and learn less than most of their European counterparts. Our best universities do a decent job in extremely adverse conditions, but are left little space to breath, squeezed as they are by a suffocating state beaurocracy intent on micro-management of academic affairs on the one hand, and by the endemic contestation (often assuming violent forms) on the part of a minority of their students on the other hand. Youth unemployment is second only to certain lawless regions of the Italian South. The few who do have a job must come to terms with low wages and work insecurity. And, at the background, the asfyxiating presence of a hyper-protective family, which no longer believes in hard work as a value, but likes to cultivate unrealistically high expectations instead.

Crucially, the difficult task of integrating one million recent immigrants (in a native population of 10 million) has been shamefully neglected. Their children spend most of their time in their own ethnically homogeneous neighborhoods in Athens and elsewhere. They go to local state schools, that are gradually abandoned by Greek kids as their families move out, and where they are taught basic numeracy and literacy by increasingly demoralised (and increasingly resigned) teachers. Outside school, in workplaces and in their dealings with the state, they face hostility or, at best, indifference. They have no faith in, and feel no loyalty to, the country that hosts them – and who can blame them?

The above may help make sense of the intensity of so many adolescents’ reaction to the killing of a boy their age. But in order to explain the violence, the damage to banks, the looting of shops, as well as the destruction of state universities, public libraries and national theatres, one needs to turn elsewhere; beyond the repulsion of the middle classes, which might have been more convincing had they been less accustomed to evading taxes and ignoring rules when it suits them; and beyond the hollow words of our radicals, who christen “social revolt” (and by implication, worth our respect) every act of blind and indiscriminate violence at the expense of universities, libraries, theatres and the rest of our public (and, incidentally, defenseless) cultural institutions.

To explain the great number of youth committing acts of violence, and the even greater number of those tolerating such violence, one would have to tackle rather uncomfortable issues. Like the profound indifference (if not open complacence) of many Greeks with respect to the actions of the “17 November” terrorist group that was operative from the early 1970s to the beginning of the current decade. Like the spontaneous solidarity of an overwhelming majority of Greeks to the bloodiest regimes and leaders of our time (Slobodan Milošević, Saddam Hussein and others), on the grounds that they stood up to the Americans. Like the silence of our trade unions, and the lack of attention of our public opinion, to the victims (all foreign workers) of the many accidents at work caused by the reckless drive to complete the stadiums and supporting infrastructure in time for the 2004 Athens Olympics. Like the tacit acceptance of, and the enthusiastic participation to, the collapse of the most elementary rules of civil coexistence that is the everyday chaos of motor traffic. Like the resignation of so many in front of the regular and perfectly organised clashes between rival football fans.

Early responses to the crisis on the part of the political elite have often verged on overt or covert indulgence, of the “these-kids-have-good-reasons-to-be-violent” variety. This show of remorse is too shallow and insincere to be convincing. In any case, it will take much more than that for an exit from the current political crisis, just as the economic crisis begins to bite. The culture of violence is not easy to defeat, not by a polity that lacks the moral authority to combat it, nor in a society that refuses to acknowledge its existence. This time, no short cuts are on offer. As the saying goes, a crisis can be an opportunity to amend the bad old ways and make a fresh start. Will we Greeks be up to it?