I was complaining in an Athens taverna to a humane and sensible journalist about how hard it is to explain why there are so few terrorists in the world. In my -particular case, as a writer trying to finish a book, what set five or six killers from the Greek revolutionary group known as “17N” (17 November) apart from tens of thousands of Greeks whose far-left political creed was basically identical to theirs?
Yannis” silenced me with the story of an incident from the early 1970s. He described sidling into a restaurant bathroom to arm the time bomb in his satchel. Afterward, the bathroom door refused to open. He passed several lifetimes jammed between the toilet and his ticking bomb before a superhuman effort unstuck it. Then he tottered up the street to deposit his parcel next to its target.
My jaw dropped. I had known “Yannis” for years. How could this morally rigorous, highly intelligent figure across the table have been one of the terrorists I was writing about? He as was as close to a kindred spirit as anyone I knew in Greece. Did that make me a bomb-thrower (by proxy) as well? In 2003, I had resigned from the U.S. Foreign Service after nearly 20 years in the State Department to protest the war in Iraq, and my letter of resignation had been published worldwide. Could the little group of N17 members I’d been bicycling to study at Korydallos Prison be more like me than I’d realized?
Families of Terrorists?
Once I thought about it, the three tall Xiros brothers could be my two brothers and me — the frustrated artistic impulses, the taste for do-it-yourself improvising, the private code of freewheeling sarcasm, the hypersensitivity to unfairness. Christodoulos, like me the eldest, didn’t outgrow his “Fatso” nickname until prison, but it took me almost that long to outgrow the childhood memory of my own. Then there was tiny Kiki with her waist-length hair. Achingly straightforward but ferocious against perceived injustice, she was a blend of my sister and my aunt Terry. Kiki’s husband, compact, ascetic Dimitris Koufodinas disappeared into books as ruthlessly as I. I half-envied the time and concentration his life sentence granted him. In his prison cell, he was translating the latest classics of Latin American revolutionary theory into scrupulous Greek, determined to serve his chosen cause as practically as he could.
Understanding myself as a terrorist had its advantages. Suddenly I could intuit, for example, what had gone into Koufodinas’ efforts to nurture his band of zealots. It started with an unfilled niche in the local political ecology. Koufodinas and his schoolmates resurrected 17N in 1983 when the “official” revolutionary group ELA fell apart just as the Greek government starting breaking key promises to leftist supporters. For my part, I and some friends created the Hellenic-American Democratic Association in late 2004 after the “official” Democrats in Athens slept through a vital U.S. election.
A bloated sense of personal responsibility is another feature I thought I understood. Most people are mature enough to recognize that the dire ethical question, “If not I, who? If not now, when?” is not rhetorical. In a healthy democracy, the morally correct answers are often “the appropriate authorities” and “as soon as they can.” Koufodinas and I had both spent many hours dealing with our members’ (and yes, our own) vanity that our marginal group should do something in response to the injustices plaguing Greece, and the planet. A steady stream of symbolic missions was needed to keep our hotheads at ease with their consciences. 17N fired rockets at the windows of multinational corporations. The Hellenic-American Democratic Association picked up trash on beaches and faxed irate letters to our congressmen.
Moral megalomania can make people useful volunteers, but it can also make them deaf to the messages society sends about patience and compromise. Like 17N, we had our snits and walkouts, our accusations that member A was an apologist for the regime or member B was a provocateur. We rebuilt harmony with gallons of cheap wine in traditional Greek eateries like the ones 17N frequented — although 17N could soothe wounded feelings with cash bonuses as well. Koufodinas kept detailed financial records to reassure himself that his group’s bloody bank robberies served a greater good.
Firm belief in something makes us better people, provided a very flexible chain connects our private beliefs with our public behavior. One of the saddest moments of the 17N trial came when the father of the Xiros brothers, an Orthodox priest, came to testify. Faithful to the biblical injunction against swearing oaths (Matthew 5.34), he rejected every form of oath the judge offered him, and finally left the court in helpless tears without defending his children. Revolutionary communist dogma is no less uncompromising than that of the Desert Fathers. The description Kiki used for her man was “consistent,” but “fanatical” is the more customary term for someone whose beliefs take precedence over family, friends, and even the evidence of their five senses. Here, I think, was where “Yannis” (along with 99.9 percent of the human race) parted company with 17N.
The Cold Shower of Reality
“Yannis’ ” bomb was his parting shot in a naive struggle against “U.S. imperialists and their Greek lackeys.” What convinced him to stop was not his near-death experience in the men’s room but a different plumbing adventure — the cold shower of social reality.
“Yannis” had been revolutionized within a bubble of student idealism in western Europe. He and his fellow exiles sang stirring ballads and read each other’s proclamations. The duty to smuggle oneself back into Greece as a freedom fighter against the dictatorship seemed self-evident. But when “Yannis” crossed the border, he discovered that he and his friends had been deluding themselves. Ordinary Greeks would not lift a finger against their clanking colonels. When a handful of long-haired leftists summoned them to freedom, the response was blank stares.
Greece’s dictatorship collapsed from its own incompetence in 1974. “Yannis” earned advanced degrees abroad and became one of Greece’s most thoughtful and independent journalists. In contrast, 17N’s founders closeted themselves underground with the urban guerrilla skills they had learned. For 20 years the Greek state’s flaws gave them pretexts for assassinating one person a year — the maximum they thought Greek society would tolerate. In the healthier Greek democracy of the 1990s their niche closed. All but their most fanatical members had already gone home when the police broke 17N in 2002.
The moral problem is that “Yannis” was perfectly right to fight the Junta. Do we believe in liberty? We say so. “Yannis’ ” bomb injured no one — he and his friends were careful — and a long series of such pinpricks played some role in goading the colonels toward self-destruction. But how do we distinguish my brave friend from 17N and its superficially similar bombs?
No society is healthy without thoughtful people prepared to die (and in rare, precise cases, also to kill) in defense of their freedoms. If a U.S. official were to suspend the Constitution from some undisclosed secure location, I would want ten million “Yannis” to step forward. In such numbers, they would need no bombs.
What separates principled patriots from fanatical ideologues is the formers’ constant critical dialogue with society’s prevailing wisdom. Not that our society is always wise, but to be effective, our tactics must respect its basic moral consensus. Even in a noble-sounding cause, those who confuse their personal moral instincts with “justice” and close their ears to society’s attempts to correct them are terrorists at heart.
Brady Kiesling’s resignation from the U.S. State Department made him the answer to a New Yorker trivia question. He is the author of Diplomacy Lessons: Realism for an Unloved Superpower and is working on a new book on 17 November. He lives in Athens, Greece, where he writes a monthly column “Diplomat Among the Ruins,” for Athens News. His website is bradykiesling.com