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Monday, August 25, 2003

Our Opinion

A Fable for Our Times

There are still many villages in Greece today where donkeys are major means of transport. Anyone who’s even come close to one knows how exceptional these creatures are: intelligent, sure-footed (negotiating the country’s craggy landscape with rare dexterity), patient, Biblically uncomplaining about their role as beasts of burden, and, of course, equally Biblical in their loyalty to their human masters. Every culture has its own lore about handling this socially mythical quadruped, but there’s an old, unusually apposite, American protocol about it. First thing you do in dealing with this animal, the saying goes, is walk up to it and then haul back and punch it right between the eyes. Why? Just to get its attention.

We don’t think it’s a coincidence that George W. Bush is a self-styled ranchero who’s assuredly familiar with the traditions of managing — and abusing — burros in his part of the world. Hardly had the (virtual) ink dried on our last edition of, in which one article detailed the incredible accusation by the US that Greece was a global cesspool of sexual slavery and abuse of immigrant women and children (see “Diplomatic Rape,”, July 30), than the New York Times published a report (“U.S. is Inspecting Overseas Airports for Missile Threats,” August 7) by correspondent Philip Shenon about the inspection of Athens airport as “part of the [US] administration’s response to recent intelligence reports suggesting that a terrorist attack using small heat-seeking missiles may be imminent, probably overseas.” The airport in Athens, it seems, had the dubious distinction of being part of a group that included those in Istanbul and Manila, as well as — this is not a joke — Baghdad and Basra! Yes, Athens, Baghdad, and Basra — and, just in case there were still a few (unusually dull-witted) people out there who did not quite get what this sudden rise in the “terrorist profile” of Athens airport was all about, Mr. Shenon clarified the point further down in his dispatch: “Al Qaeda and its terrorist affiliates have long been known to operate in Greece, Turkey and the Philippines….” That certainly woke up the donkey on August 7.

There is much — oh so much — to be said about this newest smash on the snout, but, frankly, like most Greeks, we’re sick and tired of endlessly repeating ourselves. In any case, as we say in Greek, stou koufou tên porta… (i.e., don’t waste your time knocking on the door of the deaf). Two comments need to be made, however, more for our fellow Americans than for our fellow Greeks.

First, as it just so happens, the editors of this site have been flying in and out of Eleftherios Venizelos International Airport pretty regularly during the last few months (not to mention the last couple of years). Call us naive, but our own concerns for life and limb are invariably centered on the cab rides to and from the airport rather than on the airport itself. Indeed, what has struck us, from this last spring and throughout the summer, has been how positively serene, indeed almost ghostly, the airport is every time we’re there. In other words, at the height of the “tourist season” (a term that has become more and more academic in Greece during the last few years), Athens airport is more or less empty.

Which leads us to our second point: It seems that the gratuitous sabotage of Greece’s tourist industry has become a specific goal of US foreign policy. What started out as a chess match during the Reagan-Papandreou years has, at this point, degenerated into an endless round of Russian roulette, in which Greece is habitually, and summarily, the one forced to pull the trigger. There’s a part of us, of course, that almost welcomes this annual US attack on Greek GDP, since we think the US is doing Greece a favor by pointing to the emperor’s (that is, the Greek tourist industry’s) nakedness. Still, if Greek tourism has severe infrastructural problems — which we believe it has had for many years now — we think it’s a matter for Greece to resolve, not for the US. In any case, we’re not so credulous as to believe that the US goes through this yearly ritual of economic defenestration simply for reasons of exemplary tutelage.

The point here, however, is not to blame the US. Under George Bush, it is doing what it’s always done (albeit with an unprecedented, almost genetic, arrogance): looking after its own interests. That’s what nations are supposed to do, after all. But what has Greece — or, more accurately, the Simitis government — been doing all this time? Under Foreign Minister George Papandreou, basically just smiling and shuffling a lot. Unfortunately, this “performative” (as they say in the academy) approach to foreign policy has not only been unseemly (time-serving always is) but painful.

There’s got to be a better way. Indeed, anything is better than this. What makes Costas Simitis’s management of the Greek-US relationship truly inexplicable (and indefensible) is that, given the reality of Greece’s integration into the European Union, there is, literally, no reason for it. It makes one believe that even the unbearable political lightness of Kostas Karamanlis would serve Greece better than the current absurd — and thoroughly appalling — continuation of the Simitis/Papandreou state of affairs.

Meanwhile, back in the real world, it’s always something. Just when it looks like some tourists might actually fly into the country — at the moment, Greece is, paradoxically, the only part of Europe that hasn’t been ravaged by a heat wave, the war in Iraq is “over” (or, at least, formally declared as such), and Colin Powell has nothing but praise for George Papandreou — something always “pops up,” and always out of Washington. Last month, it was the sex trade (Colin might love George, but that doesn’t mean he’s got to be promiscuous about George’s country); this month, it’s “security” in Athens airport and, of course, “Al Qaeda and its terrorist affiliates…in Greece.” (The state department did finally assert in response to the Times story that it had “no information to substantiate press allegations that Al Qaeda is known to have a presence in Greece,” but it waited six days to do so, which means, naturally, that it was one of those formal “denials” that is a non-denial, undoubtedly undertaken by Colin as a personal favor to George.) As for next month, we have no idea what’s on the agenda, but we’re sure that the Bush administration — and its honchos in the US embassy in Athens — will think of something. They always do.

Although follows events in Greece intimately, we confess that the notion that “Al Qaeda and its terrorist affiliates have long been known to operate” in the country has come as astounding news to us. Naturally, both Greece’s geography and its recent history of terrorism make it perfectly reasonable to assume that Al Qaeda would be operating in the country — except that assumptions are one thing and reality another. A few months ago, many people “assumed” not only that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, but that they were ready to be launched at the civilized world: Tony Blair said that Britain was “45 minutes” away from harm’s way if the Iraqi dictator was not stopped. It was a long 45 minutes indeed.

Consequently, as far as Al Qaeda “and its terrorist affiliates” in Greece are concerned, until we are presented with just a bit of evidence to support this charge — since the amount of evidence to date has been precisely zero — we reserve the right to discount it all as a manifestly cynical charade. As for the security at Athens airport, let alone in the city as a whole, suffice it to say one thing:’s editors, as we’ve said, travel frequently between the Greek capital and New York, but it is only when the plane lands at JFK that fear and trembling become a “normal” part of our lives again. Which, in the end, helps to explain why the poor donkeys of the world are, from time to time, suddenly, for no reason, bashed in the head: their American master has got to take out his frustrations on somebody. In the event, as we all know, despite their reputation for dignity and even willfulness, the sad, unfortunate donkeys simply stand there and take it.

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