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Wednesday, July 30, 2003

Book Reviews

The Banality of November 17’s Journalistic Critics

Ê Anametrêsê. Zoê kai Thanatos tês 17 Noemvrê (The Showdown: The Life and Death of November 17) by Yannis Pretenteris. Estia, Athens, 2002, 141 pages, 9 euros.

Yiannis Pretenteris’s book was the second one on November 17 to be published by Estia, within six months of the events in June 2002 that signified the beginning of the end of the group’s terrorist activities, which had lasted for almost three decades. Reading Pretenteris’s book after the one written by Alexis Papachelas and Tasos Telloglou (see “Filing Away November 17,”, July 7), my impression has been reinforced that the publisher rushed to corner what promised to be a very lucrative market, by ensuring not only that something would be on bookstore shelves quickly, but also that differing approaches (for different tastes in political prurience) were offered to the public. While Papachelas’s and Telloglou’s book offered a summary account of the group’s historical development, Pretenteris’s engagement with November 17 is a steam-of-consciousness, self-righteous diatribe against the group and, most important, against the public whose tolerance of it (through its silence) was, according to Pretenteris at least, the single most important reason for the group’s longevity.

This particular view is, of course, hardly novel. It has been expressed, analyzed, and discussed repeatedly in the Greek press. Takis Michas in particular has made this point over a long period. The author, however, feels compelled not only to go down this primrose path once more, but also to add a psychological and philosophical raison d’etre to it. (Naturally, he also begs the question as to what he was doing against November 17 for 27 years that was so radically — and noisily — different from his fellow citizens.)

November 17’s “banality” seems to have become its most-discussed quality since the group’s destruction by the police. In contrast to the myth that had envisioned the group as being made up of ideological and, to a certain extent, social heavyweights, the arrests brought us a police lineup of “anthropakia,” or little men. The terrorists’ banality preoccupies Pretenteris throughout his book, starting with the prologue, which begins with September 11. This approach sees the destruction of the World Trade Center as an act that corresponded to the murders committed by November 17, since the violence in both cases was presumably motivated by a logic, fanaticism, and hatred that were essentially the same.

Perhaps. Still, if the point to comparing the terrorist attacks of September 11 to those of November 17 is to stress the fact that there was nothing unique in their respective murderousness, Pretenteris’s method is highly problematic. The fact that the terrorists of September 11 and of the November 17 group both used terror in pursuit of their goals does not mean that there were not fundamental distinctions, and different contexts, to the two circumstances. The acts of violence themselves, as well as the groups that perpetrated them, were thoroughly different in their motivation, structure, and cultural, political, and historical specificity — not to mention in the way they altered and affected everyday life for the rest of us. To ignore these distinctions is to relativize and trivialize the monumental significance of September 11.

Pretenteris constantly mocks the anti-Americanism of November 17, but his prologue reveals a not-so-subtle and cynical anti-Americanism of its own. The World Trade Center’s destruction is characterized as the most “phantasmagoric ceremony” (p. 9) that one could imagine, while the collapse of the buildings is described as a “superproduction, similar to those that only America can offer to the rest of the world” (p. 9). Pretenteris’s comments on September 11 expose a complete, and deplorable, lack of empathy for human life that is not very different from the one that he continually ascribes to November 17.

One of the problems with the obsessive focus on November 17’s so-called banality is that it suggests a desire and willingness to accept it if only its image had proven to be consistent with that of the myth that had surrounded it. One sees this clearly in Pretenteris’s first chapter. Smitten, it seems, by certain cultural myths and stereotypes, Pretenteris juxtaposes the obsessive, self-destructive dedication of a Mohammed Atta with the petit bourgeois life of Dimitris Koufodinas. While he is full of contempt for Koufodinas’s seemingly middle-class existence, he subtly alludes to the presence of a primordial form of humanity in the obsessive extremism of Atta and his literary persona, Dostoyevsky’s Stavrogin. Pretenteris finds “poetry” (p.29) in Atta’s destruction within the darkness he creates. November 17’s greatest failure is its members’ social conformity and their unwillingness to die, as Pretenteris tritely puts it, “for or together with the revolution” (p. 29). One gets the impression that the author’s repugnance for these men is based on their failure to give their actions a “poetic” — that is, a self-destructive — dimension.

Quickly, one realizes that Pretenteris’s major concern in writing his book was to condemn and assign collective guilt to Greek society for the emergence and development of November 17, and terrorism in Greece more broadly. (Of course, I don’t know what gives him the right to his holier-than-thou attitude, seeing that he is an intimate part of the Greek media elite that was responsible, to a great degree, for creating the myth of November 17.) For Pretenteris, the tolerance of Greeks is what fed and sustained the group for three decades: “…[T]errorism exists for as long as society tolerates it. And it ceases to be as soon as society shuts the door to it” (p. 32). A large part of his book focuses on polls that show what Pretenteris considers a high percentage of people who seemed to be sympathetic, if only through indifference, to November 17, and the author is scandalized by a demonstration of approximately 1,200 people in support of the group and against its victims.

How is it possible, however, to determine the disposition of a whole country based upon the actions of 1,200 people? Is this type of demonstration a uniquely Greek phenomenon, as Pretenteris attests? Has he been to Belfast or Bilbao lately, or ever? The fact is — as everybody, except Pretenteris apparently, knows — that this demonstration was totally dissociated from the feelings of the vast majority of Greeks. In any case, as Martha Crenshaw has written, to people “who do not experience personal vulnerability…terrorism is drama” (see “Questions to be answered, research to be done, knowledge to be applied” in Origins of Terrorism: Psychologies, Ideologies, Theologies, States of Mind, p. 257). If anything, with his grotesque reference to September 11 as a “superproduction,” Pretenteris proves that he is guiltier than anyone of insensitivity to the entire issue of terrorist violence.

There is no doubt, of course, that the myth of November 17 (created, maintained, and, most of all, exploited by the media and various Greek governments) had a certain appeal for a small part of the Greek public. But the absence of a strong negative reaction to the group by the public was not what sustained it for three decades, as Pretenteris cavalierly charges. One would have to look to the incompetence of the Greek security forces, and the confusion and fear of successive governments, to identify the fundamental reasons for November 17’s longevity. The only things the Greek people sustained during all those years were newspaper circulation figures and TV ratings — both of which contribute to Mr. Pretenteris’s handsome income as a journalist.

The November 17 myth has been built over a long period of time and has many different layers. The identities of the group’s members were filtered for three decades through so many different strata of representation that they ceased completely to be real people. For years, the unknown and unknowable Yiotopoulos, Koufodinas, and Xiroses were the creations of a collective imagination that was thoroughly disconnected from reality. The public imagined them in relation to different historical and political situations and developments. In that sense, the public’s original apprehension, confusion, and hesitation over accepting the fact that they were indeed the members of November 17 were actually justified, since the decades-long official versions and perceptions of the group’s membership had been utterly unreliable, muddled, and opportunistic. For Pretenteris to insist now on the Greek public’s sole “responsibility” for November 17’s durability is not merely simplistic and self-serving but intellectually dishonest.

There is, however, an element in Pretenteris’s book that is on target, and it concerns the reaction of a number of Greek intellectuals, the left, and the press to November 17’s demise. The left’s love affair with conspiracy theories and with the need to attribute everything to US intelligence services was especially ridiculous in this case. Pretenteris rightly points to the left’s hypocrisy in dealing with November 17’s collapse, as well as to how the left was damaged by its inability to move beyond theories of “dark circles” and social exploitation and oppression.

But all these issues have been discussed and overly analyzed continually since the developments of June 2002. The ultimate problem with Pretenteris’s book is that it adds nothing new, either to the ongoing debates or to the subject at hand. As a matter of fact, the author could have clearly made his point in a newspaper essay. As I kept reading the same points again and again, I could not help but feel that self-righteousness was the only motivation for this particular exercise.

Both of Estia’s books on November 17 were published at a time when a large number of assumptions still went unquestioned. These assumptions have proven to be unreliable and to impede any critical approach. The fact remains that the myth of November 17 waits to be demythologized and stripped to its real dimensions. What both of these works lack is the willingness — and perhaps the ability — to undertake the intellectually painstaking work of searching through an incredible amount of archival data and conclusive as well as inconclusive and incomplete evidence, and then, and most important of all, putting all this material together in the context of the social and political history of Greece in the last quarter of the twentieth century. In the event, the story of November 17 remains to be told.

In addition to being a co-founder of, Stelios Vasilakis is a classical philologist and a former associate of the Speros Basil Vryonis Center for the Study of Hellenism.
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