There are many ways one can look upon Dimitris Christoulas’s decision to end his life in front of Parliament on Wednesday. Each has a different interpretation, each has different implications, but no matter which one you choose, they will all fill you with sorrow.
On a personal level, it is a tragedy that a 77-year-old man should feel so discouraged by what he saw around him, so appalled by his own financial misfortune and the prospect of scrounging from garbage cans to survive, that he should choose to shoot himself in the center of Athens.
One can feel nothing but despair that an active member of his community should feel so alone that he should opt to exit society in such a dramatic way. It tells us of the isolation and hopelessness that many around us feel. Lest we forget, it brings us face to face with the impact of the crisis and the flawed economic polices it has spawned. We see more clearly the people who have lost their jobs, businesses, homes and aspirations. It reminds us that the human cost of the so-called fiscal adjustment makes debates about the political cost irrelevant.
On a political level, Christoulas’s act and the suicide note he left in his pocket will reverberate for some time. His frustration at the apparent apathy of most Greeks is a sentiment that many can identify with. Twinges of guilt were felt throughout the country.
His decision to commit suicide in front of Parliament, the building that has been the subject of such scorn due to the fecklessness of many of the politicians that conduct their business there, was as painful a blow against the country’s political elite as a pensioner growing weaker by the day could hope to deliver.
A passionate leftist who took part in protests and attended last summer’s Aganaktizmenoi (Indignant) gatherings in Syntagma Square — where he drew his last breath on Wednesday — Christoulas made his disillusionment known to the world in the most tragic way. A man who had reportedly participated in neighborhood schemes to talk young people out of using drugs and who had supported the “I won’t pay” movement, finally gave up the fight. He seems to have felt that in death, and by this particular method of dying, he could have a much greater impact on public opinion than through the daily struggle he had engaged in.
“This final act was a conscious political act, entirely consistent with what he believed and did in his life,” his daughter Emy Christoula said in a statement.
Hearing friends and neighbors talk to the media about Christoulas, one gets the impression he could have led many stimulating conversations or even arguments about Greece’s economic and political problems. Nobody will have the opportunity to hear his views anymore. Instead, we are left with the pieces of the man, pieces that we will all try to put together to draw some kind of message.
His references to Kalashnikovs, governments of collaboration and young people hanging traitors in the same square that he shot himself was the language of a man who had snapped. But it is also similar to the language that has been adopted by some media commentators, politicians and anti-austerity protesters. In the confusion and exasperation of this debilitating crisis, these words of rage trip off the tongue. There are few Greeks who haven’t been at least momentarily overcome by a mood of destructive exasperation over the last couple of years.
However, there is a difference between feeling this fury and making it a guiding principle. Blind rage, vigilantism, kicking out at everything and everyone won’t get Greece anywhere. Targeted anger, the kind that generates determination to change things for the better, might bring progress.
Christoulas’s last words were reported to be: “Don’t leave debts to your children.” This is a much more fitting principle to be guided by as we seek to change our world. The idea of not passing on to the next generation the pathogenic sickness of the past few decades should be the goal of every Greek.
This language implies that removing a handful of people from the equation would solve Greece’s woes. For starters, Greeks will have the chance to do this via the ballot box in a few weeks’ time. If the value of this most ancient of democracies is to be restored, then voters must use the general elections due to take place next month to inject some purpose into the system. Rather this than nooses and firing squads.
But Greece’s problems go deeper than just a few undesirables. The reason that the next generation is inheriting such huge debt certainly has much to do with the greed and selfishness of the country’s political elite. They are qualities that allowed gross inefficiencies to be papered over by borrowing, a dangerous tendency that was indulged by Greece’s entry into the euro. The dynamics of the single currency also compounded Greek debt problems as politicians here and abroad failed to see the looming dangers. The response to the crisis at a domestic, European and international level has been woeful and has made the situation worse.
Greeks must strive to change the most negative elements of the policies being adopted as part of the country’s bailouts but even this won’t be enough. If we are not going to be condemned to repeat this nightmare, though, we have to accept that our society also has to take its share of the blame and has to find a way to reinvent itself.
Too many Greeks grew comfortable with a way of life that was not necessarily exorbitant but was certainly unsustainable. As has been proved, it was unsustainable economically because the Greek state spent more than it could afford and to keep up this expensive habit it became a credit junkie that the international markets could exploit. But, more importantly, this method of doing things was unsustainable socially. It created a society with gross inequalities and allowed too many people to become detached from reality and the damaging long-term effect this was having on the country.
It gave us the patron-client relationship, cash for contracts, political unaccountability, reckless policing, unchecked hirings, unevaluated civil servants, endless bureaucracy, illegal construction, postdated checks, closed professions, cartels, middlemen, high prices, poor service, corruption, tax evasion, impunity and many more pernicious phenomena. They all played their part in dividing a society in which some benefited from this fragmentation and others suffered.
While it is right that a pensioner’s decision to shoot himself in the center of Athens should shock us, we cannot hide from the fact that Greece has been committing a slow and painful suicide for some time. Recognizing this and doing more to combat each and every one of these insidious tendencies would be the most fitting tribute we could pay to Dimitris Christoulas.