Ever since Athens Polytechnic University was seized by students in 1973 in an ultimately successful attempt to end the hated military regime of the Colonels, the image of the student protester in Greece has retained an almost mythical status. He stands up for justice and against tyranny most of all.
However, much wrong has been done in the name of good because of it. Often, but certainly not always, young Greeks have the storied images of their revered Junta-slaying predecessors in mind more than the perceived injustice at hand as they hurl rocks at police.
The current riots and looting are the result of a 15-year-old boy being shot dead by police in the same neighborhood, Exarchia, that the Polytechnic resides in and that has become an anarchic hotbed since that original uprising. That a young boy may have been killed for no good reason, or is dead for any reason, is cause enough for outrage. The students this time, however, have impeached themselves of righteousness by looting or destroying more than 400 shops last Tuesday night alone. They are a far cry from the hoarse young man, locked within the Polytechnic radio room, crying out the lyrics of the national anthem as the tanks rolled in through the front gates.
If possible, however, the students may not be the most contemptible party in the current situation. Takis Michas reports in the Wall Street Journal last week:
The government’s passivity amid this dissolution of law and order did not simply reflect bad crisis management or sheer incompetence. At a deeper level the conservative government’s failure to respond decisively signified its defeat in the battle of ideas, especially among the young.
The abdication of responsibility was in part the result of the New Democracy party’s abandonment of the values of classical liberalism, whose cornerstone is the rule of law and the respect of private property. Under the leadership of Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis, the party has over the years purged from its ranks all voices of classical liberalism and has explicitly rejected values-based narratives in favor of an ill-defined pragmatism. This has proved no match for the ideological assault by the left, which ended up monopolizing the marketplace of ideas in the universities and the other educational establishments of the country.
Such was the ideological confusion of the government that on the night of the great destruction the only criticism that Interior Minister Prokopis Pavlopoulos could voice against the plundering thugs was that they were following their own self-interests. Adam Smith would surely turn in his grave!
Even worse was the statement by Panagiotis Stathis, spokesman for the national police, explaining the authorities’ inaction: “Violence cannot be fought with violence.” With this remark, he effectively equated violence exercised by the authorities to defend the social order with the violence of those trying to destroy it.
“The fall of Rome,” wrote Seneca, “took place when Rome’s pragmatism ceased to be pragmatic.” Unfortunately, the conservatives in Greece do not read Seneca — or much else for that matter.