La Haine (Hate), Mathieu Kassovitz’s seminal 1995 film about the disenfranchised youths of a Paris housing project begins with an image of a petrol bomb dropping to earth. As the firebomb falls, a voice says: “It’s a story about a guy who falls from a 50-story building. As he falls, he tries to reassure himself by repeating: “So far, so good. So far, so good. So far, so good.” When the firebomb explodes, the voice says: “It’s not the fall that matters, it’s the landing.” Last Wednesday, when three bank employees in central Athens suffocated from the smoke produced by petrol bombs, it confirmed Greece was locked in a death spiral and rapidly approaching rock bottom.
The incident and its fallout encapsulated the failures and hang-ups that have pushed Greece into the void. The attack, carried out by mindless fanatics or deranged criminals depending on how you prefer to view it, was the culmination of years of pathetic indifference to the destructive nature of a fringe element that mistakenly believes it has a relevant message to convey. Greek society has never been able to draw a clear distinction between what is legitimate, effective and necessary protest and what is the imposition of one’s view on others.
The way some protesters taunted the bank employees is evidence of the perverted thinking that has been allowed to fester among a segment of the population. It’s the defeat of compassion by bigotry and the loss of common sense to blind obedience. Unquestioning commitment to the cause suggests a society where the basic norms have dissolved under the pressure of its members constantly needing someone or something to oppose.
The fact that the particular bank was a sitting target, with little protection against such an attack, highlights more of this society’s hang-ups. The bank did not have metal shutters because it was housed in a neoclassical, listed building. If the building was worth protecting, either it shouldn’t have housed a bank or adjustments should have been made to protect it. Doing neither is proof of a people that cannot reconcile themselves with their past, who end up simultaneously paying it both too much and too little respect. The end result is that Greeks are not able to live fully in the present, let alone think about the future.
That the three employees were allowed to be in harm’s way also points to some of the shortcomings in labor relations in Greece. Although Marfin Egnatia is not a member of the OTOE banking union, which had joined in the general strike, the Stadiou Street branch should have been closed last Wednesday purely for safety reasons. Rather than bowing to protesters, this would have been an acknowledgment of the real danger to employees’ health and safety. People are a business’s most important assets but in Greece the conditions in which employees work are too often overlooked. The unions that represent workers are too focused on other areas, such as maintaining privileges and rigid labor regulations, to pay any attention to ensuring working conditions are safe and professional.
The reaction of the country’s unions and politicians after the firebombing emphasized the bankruptcy of the current system. In the immediate aftermath of the three deaths, when a minute’s silence and a brief statement of condolence would have sufficed in Parliament, the party leaders chose to engage in drawn-out political point-scoring. The unseemly argument between the Popular Orthodox Rally (LAOS) and the Communist Party (KKE) was like guests at a funeral arguing over the quality of the brandy. The unions reacted by making the rally they had organized for the next day one of remembrance as well as of protest against the austerity measures. It didn’t occur to them to either cancel the gathering out of respect for the dead or to organize one for another day just in memory of the three victims.
In fact, the silent protest that was held in Syntagma Square on Sunday by a couple of hundred citizens also speaks volumes about Greece’s social degeneration. Those who gathered did so thanks to a commendable effort to use the real social networking power of the Internet. But the presence of less than 200 people confirmed a fear or lack of conviction among Greeks – who have been spoon-fed political protest as the only form of valid public discourse – to eschew these old habits and voice their displeasure as independent citizens. And, what of the young people who so passionately and so justifiably took to the streets to protest the killing of teenager Alexis Grigoropoulos in December 2008 – where were they to protest the deaths of people that could have been their brothers, sisters or cousins? Did someone not have the guts to tell them that in a few years’ time they could be the ones working behind desks at banks?
Certainly, it’s not something they would hear from the media. Never ones to miss an opportunity to pour oil onto the fire, newspapers, radio and TV had for weeks been screaming about tough measures and unavoidable pain and disaster. None of them, though, would accept that for years they have played a part in fostering an atmosphere of fear, antagonism and rejectionism. Why keep your head, when – as the media suggest – everyone around you is losing theirs? And, just to confirm the cheapness of the country’s journalism, one newspaper illustrated a story about one of the victims – a woman who was four-months pregnant – by running a picture of a sonogram with flames surrounding an unborn baby.
But perhaps the most galling aspect of the firebombing was that the three victims belonged to a group this country is relying on to stay afloat – salaried workers. For years now, Greece has managed to stumble along because of employees who have their taxes deducted at source. These people carried others who treated tax as an option rather than an obligation. Having been pushed, pulled and squeezed for so many years, they are now being asked to give again. Well, three of them can’t give anymore, nor will they find out if everyone will be made to pay their fair share.
As La Haine nears its tragic climax, the three main characters pass a billboard. The image of the earth is seen again, this time with the slogan “Le monde est a vous” (The world is yours) underneath it. One of the three takes a can of spray paint and changes the words so they read: “Le monde est a nous” (The world is ours). This hints at the question Greeks must respond to: whose is this country? Who will fill the moral, social and political void? As Greece hurtles headfirst toward apparent disaster, the only chance it has of landing on its feet is if this question is answered. Anything less and there will be an almighty thud when the country finally hits the ground.
This commentary was written by Nick Malkoutzis and appeared in Athens Plus on May 14.