December 16th, 2005

pacific torus vedic echoes

6,500 miles away, but close to home

I got a nasty shock earlier this week when I arrived at the office and caught up on the weekend's news -- to find out about an explosion in Athens on Monday:
ATHENS, Greece -- A bomb shattered windows in Athens' central Syntagma Square early Monday, injuring two people, police said.

Police said the bomb was apparently hidden in a container on the back of a motorcycle. It exploded shortly after an Athens newspaper received two phone calls warning of such an attack, they said.

The caller said the nearby National Economy Ministry, which was not damaged, was the intended target.

(Photo at right: Thanassis Stavrakis/Associated Press. Police cordon off and examine the scene.)

This appears to have been an incident of domestic terrorism rather than the Muslim variety so popular as an American boogeyman these days ... but that really doesn't do anything to change the fact that the explosion was only two blocks -- and two months -- away from a hotel that I stayed in.

I passed what is now a crime scene several times during my walks through the city. It was, in fact, directly on my route to the Internet cafe from which I wrote this post.

Since my late-trip pictures of Athens are all on my parents' camera -- mine having run out of memory card space -- I'm relying here on Google Earth to give some idea of the scene. Syntagma Square proper is the clump of trees and white marble in the upper right. The photo above was shot approximately at the arrow, pointing down the street to the west; the bomb was thus (presumably) at the building catticorner to the square itself. The circled building at the bottom is the Olympic Palace Hotel (our room was facing east onto Filellinon street). The previously mentioned Internet cafe is right about at the top edge of the picture, facing the square.

(Incidentally, if they'd aimed just a stone's throw north, the bombers could have taken out one of the only McDonald's in Greece. As it was, apparently the boom shattered windows for a block or more, so fast-food workers still had some cleanup to do.)

It's important to understand that there was a symbolic significance to this bomb well beyond "Hey, we can set off an explosion in the capital." Syntagma Square is arguably the heart of modern Athens.

While tourists may think of the Parthenon (on the Acropolis -- a hill important in ancient times that towers several hundred feet above the rest of the city), the Plaka (the shopping district at the Acropolis' base), or the Olympic stadiums constructed for the 2004 games, many will end up at Syntagma anyway, as it's centrally located, ringed by upscale hotels and within walking distance of the Plaka. Natives, on the other hand, will recognize it as the square across the street from the Parliament building (not quite visible at top right of map), making it roughly the Greek equivalent of Washington, D.C.'s National Mall and of comparable value as a political protest point. Syntagma's also a major transit hub, with blocks of bus stops and a subway station ringing the major Amalias street. I can confirm from a sleepless night in the hotel room that Filellinon street is a solid wall of traffic nearly 24-7.

So had the terror group been aiming for casualties or shock value, rather than trying to make some symbolic statement, this bomb could have been significantly worse than it was.

A Greek newspaper reports that the bomb was timed to go off at 6:05 a.m.. This is the first clue -- and a significant one -- that it was a symbolic bomb. In most cultures, 6 a.m. is a pretty desolate time, but for Greece, a nation of night owls, this is doubly so. Non-tourist night life often doesn't get hopping until around midnight; 2 a.m. can be at least as lively as sunset in student areas or gathering places. It starts getting quiet around 3 or 4. At 6 a.m., everyone has staggered to bed and is trying to ignore the sunrise. The only people up are some die-hard taxi drivers trying to squeeze cash out of the officially sanctioned high-fare hours (the 6-8 hours when buses and subways are shut down) and the poor saps on night shifts. (If that doesn't convince you, do recall the bomb also struck in the tourist off-season, was a block from the transit centers, and was phoned in to a newspaper before it exploded.)

At that point, the story sort of sinks into Greek politics, and I'm hardly an authority on the history of the various radical groups involved. Instead, I find myself wondering about a trivial and slightly morbid question.

Just a block away, the Evzones guard the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at the base of the Parliament building. (Do click through to that link and admire the pictures, by the way. They give some idea of the soldiers' ludicrously overblown movement style, which I can't do justice to in words. It would not surprise me one whit to learn they were one of the inspirations for the Ministry of Silly Walks sketch. Also find more background, and a picture of their pom-pom clown-like shoes, here.) They change on the hour, every hour, with two soldiers standing stone-still in front of the tomb 24 hours a day, every day.

So, at 6:05 a.m., two soldiers drilled for months or years in the art of standing motionless were just starting their ceremonial shift ... and approximately a block away, a bomb goes off, shattering glass and eliciting the screams of the wounded and frightened.

... What did they do?

And if they moved, did they catch hell for it from their commanding officer later?
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