Phantom Terror (alternative version submitted to The Montreal Gazette)

by P. D. Spyropoulos

The State Department's annual report on terrorism sent shock waves throughout the diplomatic and intelligence communities this May after it lambasted a country that it claimed ranked second worldwide in anti-U.S. terrorist attacks in 1999. The reason for the fallout? The report was not referring to Afghanistan, Libya or Iran, but to a progressive European democracy and staunch ally that has fought alongside the U.S. in every major American war.

Both the State Department findings and a subsequent report by a Congressional commission on terrorism -- which recommended considering diplomatic and military sanctions against Greece -- asked both Americans and Canadians to suspend disbelief by portraying Greece as among the world's most dangerous anti-American terrorist countries. The reports largely blamed an ineffectual or uncooperative Greek government for the situation.

Now sources that have been critical of Greece's inability to catch its terrorists -- such as The Wall Street Journal, Time magazine, and former State Department official E. Wayne Merry -- suggest that the 2004 Olympics should not be held in their birthplace as scheduled.

Yet in a regular column for The Nation, a prominent left-of-center American weekly, author Christopher Hitchens recently characterized these as "hysterical allegations" followed by "hysterical measures". An examination of the facts concerning terrorism in Greece reveals what is in effect a low-grade urban terrorist problem common to most Western countries, rather than the terrorist mecca misleadingly portrayed in the reports.

The ETA, the Basque separatists in Spain, have been responsible for hundreds of deaths in the past decade. As one British commentator noted, the terrorists in Greece "have a very low strike rate. In 25 years, its members have killed just 23 people. The IRA has been known to kill that many in a week." (Colin Smith, The Independent, 6/11).

Incredibly, the breaking of window panes and numerous other petty vandalisms were included among the 146 acts of "terrorism" cited by the Congressional report, and the State Department report mischaracterized a mentally disturbed woman's attempt to set off a mug-sized propane cooking canister at the entrance of the U.S. Consulate as an "attempt to firebomb the U.S. Consulate in Thessaloniki"

Almost all of the attacks cited by the reports were directed exclusively against property, with damages averaging under $3,000 for all incidents save one, which damaged two SUV's.

British Brigadier Stephen Saunders' June 8th murder, and the deaths of four American officials during the past quarter century, are tragic exceptions to this undistinguished record of terrorism.

Both the State Department and Congressional reports largely based their conclusions on the inability of the Greek government to apprehend the terrorists. Yet even though U.S. law enforcement agencies with far greater resources and expertise have been working with their Greek counterparts for years, they have also been unable to make any inroads against November 17. This lends credence to Greek objections that it is the secretive nature of the group, rather than any lack of political will, that lies at the heart of the impasse.

Press coverage of the issue missed another crucial point: just as a lunatic fringe of Americans use violence to oppose government policies within the U.S., the rise of politically-inspired crimes in Greece is the violent edge of a wider dissent to the U.S.'s catastrophic Yugoslav policy -- a policy that triggered consecutive campaigns of ethnic cleansing against Albanians and now Serbs in Kosovo, and that bombed close to two thousand civilians to death.

The small group of extremists responsible for the sporadic attacks on foreign businesses and the killings of four American officials during the past 25 years are a perverse exception to Greece's standing as among the safest countries in Europe for foreign officials and tourists alike. This reality was underscored when former President George Bush informed reporters while vacationing in Crete this June that he felt safe visiting Greece, and urged other Americans to do so as well. Many have voiced concerns that the State Department may be using this highly implausible portrayal of Greece as a dangerous terrorist state to gain political leverage over Greece in furtherance of Turkey's growing dominance over the region, as well as to reprimand Greece for its outspoken opposition to NATO's bombing of Yugoslavia.

Politically-motivated charges of terrorism undermine U.S. credibility worldwide and depreciate sincere concerns regarding terrorism. If American policymakers cry wolf too often, or try to exert untoward pressure on democratic allies through irresponsible accusations, both America's and Canada's capacity to counter genuine terrorist threats will be compromised and our foreign policies will sustain further damage.

The disproportionate focus on what is in essence a minor concern for American interests in Greece is a red herring that not only detracts from the real foreign policy issues the U.S. must address in the region, but hands otherwise inconsequential extremists their biggest victory by magnifying the perception of danger they pose, and thus their ability to spread terror. Moreover, exaggerating the effects of terrorism in Greece helps to undermine our staunchest and most democratic ally in the region, and our best hope for the spread of democratic and free-market values to the Balkans and beyond.

P. D. Spyropoulos is an attorney and the Executive Director of the American Hellenic Media Project (AHMP), a non-profit think-tank created to address bias in the media and encourage independent, ethical and responsible journalism. Commentaries, letters and opinion-editorials by AHMP have been published in The Baltimore Sun, Billboard, The Boston Globe, The Chicago Tribune, The Christian Science Monitor, The Daily Republican, The Daily Telegraph, The Dallas Morning News, The Detroit News, The Economist, El Nuevo Herald (Miami), The Financial Times, Forbes Global, The Fresno Bee, The Globe and Mail, The Irish Times, The Knoxville News-Sentinel, The Miami Herald, The National Review, New York Newsday, The New York Post, The New York Times, The New York Times Magazine, The Orlando Sentinel, The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, The Plain Dealer, The South China Morning Post, The St. Petersburg-Times (Fla.), The Star-Ledger (NJ), The Tampa Tribune, The Toronto Sun, USA Today, The Village Voice, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The Washington Times, and World Press Review

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Click here to view the original version of "Phantom Terror"

Click here to view an exchange of critical letters between US Ambassador to Greece, Nicholas Burns,
and the Executive Director of the American Hellenic Media Project regarding the above editorial

Click here to view coverage by The Washington Times of this exchange of letters

Click here to view an excerpt from a June 28, 2000 State Department briefing regarding this exchange of letters

Reposted: August 8, 2000

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