17 December 2008



Athens' students have learned well the lesson of the eighteenth division of the first book of what it means to be Greek.

. . . so from the head of Achilleus the blaze shot into the bright air.
He went from the wall and stood by the ditch . . .
There he stood, and shouted, and from her place Pallas Athene
gave cry, and drove an endless terror . . .
As loud as comes the voice that is screamed out by a trumpeter,
by murderous attackers who beleaguer a city.
Humiliation leads to fury. Fury leads to destuction that is anything but mindless. These minds were concentrated on destruction.

Whatever else was involved in making this crisis -- there are many factors, and this is a very partial and prejudiced account -- the students have been humiliated: humiliated by the thinness of authoritarian education in shabby classrooms; humiliated by undereducated and underpaid teachers; humiliated by a culture that will only have employment at graduation for half of them, most of that employment at minimal rates outside the area of their discipline; humilated by the loss of the future.
Despair has been fed by anarchists supplied with drug money, by frustration exploited by political extremists -- extremists are alien to irony, but reflect, will you, that Socrates was executed on a charge of corrupting the young.

Those first nights, koukouloforoi
-- "the hooded ones" -- whirled through the streets bringing terror, raging against the long-legged buildings like the flames whirling about the mannequins in the image here, smashing into plate glass with steel bars and hammers, throwing Molotov cocktails into shops and at the underpaid, undertrained, underequipped police whose job it is to get themselves abused to make the government look as if something is being done. But the koukouloforoi seek terror and destruction, not social justice, and the name recalls the nightriders of the Klan whom my mother saw riding with torches when she was a child.
Homer's warriors hurled stones (such as no man now could lift): the koukouloforoi, fuelled by adrenalin, testosterone, and the joy of destruction, smash sidewalks and pavements to get missles to hurl at the police or through the windows of shops. Blazes shot into the air from Achilleus, the green blaze of lazer pointers shoots from the koukouloforoi.

My generation learned of Molotov cocktails from the Hungarian students in 1956 who stood against Russian tanks, and the flames in Budapest came from torches made by the spontaneous lighting of newspapers that first evening when there was still hope. Students standing against tanks takes us to Tianamen Square. The fury in Athens has the dignity of neither, but it, too, is a revolution. The Athenian press calls it polemos -- war.
History is wrenched from the pavement to shatter assumptions.
Achilleus raged with unimaginable fury and his fury created such destruction that nature recoiled from him. The river vomited up his his destruction and the gods cried out: Achilleus has destroyed pity!


Saturday when the city was almost quiet, I was walking in a part of Athens new to me and glanced up absent-mindedly to see the soaring north side of the Acropolis -- the Parthenon and the Erechtheum. They came to me like singing rather than sight, singing of order, singing out what this city knows of building and mindfulness.

Then the next day at St. Paul's Anglican Church, the surrounding pavements glittering with shards of glass and burned buildings not twenty feet away, we had a reading from Isaiah:

. . . instead of ashes . . . They shall build up the ancient ruins, they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations.

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