This is my third sleepless night in Athens. This is also the second time I am leading a group of American students through 3,000 years of Greek history, from the fall of Troy circa 12th century BC to the fall of Constantinople 551 years ago. The first is elegized by Homer and Virgil. The second is remembered by my colleagues at an American school in Athens who have chosen 1453, the year of Byzantium's fall at the hands of the Ottomans, as their security code. You punch in the fateful date and the word “disarmed” appears on the pale green screen. In “Greek time,” place and myth bleed into each other, and into you. Walk on a beachhead named Marathon, cross the Corinth straight in the Peloponnesus or get off at a train station named Argos and we will see how you can keep the three separate.
This land was invaded by my ancestors under Darius and Xerxes. Herodotus referred to the first as the “great king” and characterized the second more as a tragically impetuous man than a malevolent enemy. In the name of revenge, this land invaded mine under a driven warrior and a “wannabe” Greek of Macedonian origin. Iranians, however, remember Alexander not as the ruthless invader he was but as the sage Iskandar who crossed their land in search of the land of darkness and the Fountain of Youth. Unlike us moderns, apparently neither side thought dehumanization of the enemy was necessary for warfare. Iran was a great empire, but it was not unique. There were others both older and greater.
Greece was never an empire, but it was a culture unique in its intellectual achievements. In the words of W.H. Auden, the classical Greeks did not teach us how to think, but how to think about thinking. They had full-fledged enlightenment millennia before our modern enlightenment. All the same, and at the very same time that they produced immortals likes Parmenides, Euripides and Thucydides by the dozens, the Greeks were also busy destroying themselves in foolish, internecine warfare. To defend the freedom of their petty city states from each other they surrendered the freedom of Hellas to the Macedonian upstarts. Is there a lesson in what is absolutely sublime and utterly ridiculous in human nature that we can't learn from the Greeks?
In my last Greek journey the intellectual ecstasy was uninterrupted even during such mundane chores as carrying an allergic student down a volcanic mound with the efficiency of a mule. Who reads newspapers during an ecstasy? In the spring of 1999 I took a three-month leave from world history, with no apparent intellectual ill effects. Those three months became my Walden. I comforted myself with the advice of the sage of Concord. All you need know, if I may paraphrase Thoreau, is the story of one flood, one war and one earthquake.
The rest, the stuff you read as “news” in newspapers, is not new at all; it is just repetition. Would Thoreau, sitting at this screen, in this Athenian midnight with CNN running the story of explosions in Madrid, insist on that advice? Would he turn off CNN and go on with the Greek time-space-myth continuum? After all, we all know about one terrorist atrocity; the rest — the tears, the blood, the assigning of blame, political grandstanding and haymaking — are all reruns. I don't know the answer to that question, but Madrid has surely punctured my Greek bubble. CNN will be on.
They have found pieces of an Arabic text in the rubble, and there are other signatures of Islamist terror in the devastation of Madrid. When I first heard of the events at the airport I had a subliminal, but monstrously selfish, wish: I hoped that the culprits were Basque separatists rather than Islamist terrorists. Let the Basques take the blame for this one at least, I thought. That little obnoxious thought about the massacre was as real as the night through which I have paced my room. What could I say? I know how to be glib with interviewers and hecklers in public speeches. But how would I handle the silence of friends? I must face the guilt of sharing the pigments, the accents and the intonations of the names of those who convinced themselves of these ghoulish thought and acts. And yet, when I speak out against terrorism it must not be out of guilt or because I feel implicated.
Somehow, I feel as if I owe an apology to the people of Spain for the actions of Al-Qaeda. Funny that Christians don't feel apologetic when they hear of the atrocities of the Army of the Lord in Uganda. Why should we be asked to distance ourselves or condemn Islamist terror when others don't return the gesture? Is it only because we are minorities and in exile? Is it because the majority of terrorists are dismissed as fanatics and psychos, but those of a minority pollute all? There must be consolation somewhere in these thoughts, but none that pierce my soul's dark night.
Guilt and pathos aside (even I can't do that tonight) intellectuals of all nations and religious backgrounds must take a public stand against fundamentalist terrorism anywhere and every time it happens. They must be equally vociferous against the domestic exploitation of terrorism to score political points and gain strategic ground. The invasion of Iraq was an example of shameless exploitation of the events of Sept. 11, 2001. Now the terrorists are shamelessly exploiting the invasion of Iraq to justify new atrocities.
Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian Wars shows how the smart Athenians ran circles around their own better judgment to hasten their own demise. With atomic weapons at our fingertips — and sooner or later, in the hands of terrorists — we ought to do better than the ancient Athenians and Spartans. Military solutions did not work for them. Putting instrumental reason in the service of greed, passion and patriotism did not serve those brilliant ancients. We must find better means of surviving our own follies. ……………….. Say goodbye to spam!