Friday, 19 January 2007

Avoiding a chain over-reaction

IN THE rocket-propelled grenade attack on the US embassy, familiar errors are discernible on both the Greek and the US sides. US Ambassador Charles Ries refrained from calling it a terrorist attack when he met with journalists on the asphalt of Vassilissis Sofias Avenue just hours after the attack. But in an interview on state television a few days later that position had changed. Ries termed it a "serious terrorist attack" that had diminished Greece in the eyes of the world.

As the Greeks have long maintained, there is a great qualitative difference between home-made bombs consisting of pressurised gas canisters strapped together and set off in the early hours to make a statement without hurting anyone, and a car bomb or an ambush by militia. But to State Department analysis, these are all points on a sliding scale.

Both sides have a point, but to use the T-word more than five years after George W Bush started using it is to dignify a small group of people trying to make a patriotic name for themselves by targeting the most powerful embassy in Athens. The US is not about to go to war over Greek terrorism, nor is the latter in any way that we know of connected to the jihadists and other madmen of the Middle East and Central Asia.

The Greeks are also persisting in old errors. Hitting the US embassy two years after November 17 was put behind bars returns Greece to an age of adolescence. We have no reason in the world to offend Americans, who are essentially benevolent towards us.

Most likely, the Greek terrorists are sprouting from that same trunk of Leftism that hates the US for saving Greece from the clutches of communism, and has lost faith in a political system that globally is dominated by a single superpower and domestically by two parties, Pasok and New Democracy, in which the KKE and Synaspismos need never be heeded.

Yet the best response to this symbolic terrorism, however insulting it may be, is to accord it its proper place, not to elevate it in public, and that is a question of chosen style. When November 17 carried out an identical rocket-propelled grenade attack against then German ambassador Karl Heinz Kuhna in early 1999, he quickly defeated whatever psychological impact the attack could have had. Waving a cigarette as he met journalists on the street outside his stricken home, he asked the terrorists not to disturb his neighbours in future, and criticised them for being "not very good shots".

British ambassador David Madden was quieter about it, but he, too, defied the terrorists after Al Qa'ida bombed the British consulate in Istanbul in November 2003, killing the consul. He continued to travel frequently on foot, and kept a Saturday morning tennis appointment at the British School gardens with his wife, Penelope, with absolute regularity.

Charles Ries, too, showed that he is not afraid of the terrorists. He came out of the embassy to meet with journalists no fewer than three times on the morning of the attack; and he kept a scheduled lunch appointment with this newspaper just hours later.

But the new line coming out of the State Department, whether it is American-inspired or requested by the Greeks as a way of strengthening their hand, is a mistake. It is one thing to work closely with the Greeks to ensure that they are taking terrorism seriously, and another to sound as though the country as a whole is at fault. Worrisome as the latest attack is, it should not put domestic terrorism back in the centre of the Greek-American relationship.

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