Perhaps the most alarming bit of news in the past few months – which were already frightening enough – was a report in last Sunday’s Kathimerini that the police have decided to reassemble their intelligence gathering capabilities in a bid to cope with the resurgence of domestic terrorism. “It is impossible for us to devote the resources needed to protect every possible target,” said a high-ranking source, speaking on condition of anonymity. “Therefore, we have to concentrate our efforts on trying to collect information.” This begs the question: If police were not trying to infiltrate the nascent terrorist groups, what on earth were they doing? How can they now present the basics of police work as a strategic decision?
The report provided the answer: the department responsible for collecting information on terrorism suspects was dismantled after the Athens 2004 Olympics, when an unprecedented security blanket had been cast over Greece, with the cooperation of foreign intelligence and security services and with the most sophisticated – and expensive – technology. After 2004, however, the government appeared to take its eye off the ball of public security, either through complacency or incompetence – or fear of being accused of authoritarianism. With the November 17 gang behind bars and the Olympics over, Greece let its guard down.
The bad omens, however, were quick to appear. On October 24, Revolutionary Struggle, a group that appeared a year before the Olympics in the wake of November 17’s capture, launched a bomb attack on police buses. Several attacks followed, including an anti-tank missile being shot into the US Embassy. Last Wednesday, the same group claimed that it had planted a bomb at Citibank’s offices and at a branch of the same bank. If the first bomb (60 kilograms of ammonium nitrate) had gone off, it would have brought down the whole building and ushered in a new era of blind, mass terrorism, as opposed to the largely symbolic attacks of the past.
All this time, no one appeared to take anti-terrorism operations and general police work with the necessary seriousness. This created a climate of impunity for criminals and insecurity for citizens. A policeman’s fatal shooting of a teenager in December set off riots in which the police force appeared either indifferent or impotent, thereby encouraging all forms of lawlessness: Police became a target and an excuse for further criminality. The result has been an increase in domestic terrorism, violent protests that sometimes verge on terrorism (such as setting fire to a train), a rise in violent crime (including gangland killings and kidnappings) and the brutal assault on a woman labor organizer. Sports hooliganism, too, has been spinning out of control, adding to the sense of insecurity across society.
When things begin to go awry it is very difficult to set them right, especially after a long period of neglect. With civil disobedience becoming entrenched as part of political protest, any vigorous police action is likely to lead to clashes and a further radicalization of youth and political groups. Despair over the worsening economy will lead to more tension on the streets, making police officers’ work even more difficult. As a remedy, the government is talking about the need to consolidate police stations, reducing the number of precincts from about 1,000 to 400, thereby reducing administration and sentry demands in a bid to free more officers to do real police work. This, however, will have no effect if the police do not quickly take effective action against organized crime – which includes domestic terrorism and underworld gangs – while at the same time intensifying foot patrols in neighborhoods. Crime spreads like a virus. And the government has allowed pockets of chaos to spread for far too long. Now it must curb crime without jeopardizing the nation’s hard-earned civil liberties. But only victory against crime can guarantee those liberties.
Editorial in AthensPlus, 13 March 2009