Our own “Waste Land”

Foto: Eleni Papadopoulou

A collapse of ethics, jihadist terrorism and the nation-state. A search of a new path towards transnational citizenship?

by Evangelos Areteos

I have to open my suitcase while a policeman is doing a thorough body search on a man next to me. Around us are policemen with dogs and heavy-armed soldiers with their fingers on the triggers of their guns.

I am at the railroad station just below the European Parliament in Brussels, almost twenty-four hours after the terrorist attacks. The big square in front of the Parliament is always full with people. Now it’s empty. The few people passing by look around them with fear.

For some moments I have the feeling that I am in another dimension, that I lose the sense of time and space. The heart of Europe resembled “The Waste Land” of T.S. Eliot, this complex long poem about the psychological and cultural crisis that came with the loss of moral and cultural identity after World War I.

While a helicopter was flying over us in the EU neighborhood in Brussels, I suddenly felt like as if, in the last two weeks before the attacks in Brussels, I had been traveling in a vast “waste land”, from Turkey to Greece and back to Turkey and then to Brussels. A vast land dominated by deep disillusionment and a dramatic collapse of ethics.

My trip in this land started two weeks before the Brussels attacks, on the Greek island of Lesvos next to the Turkish shores. I followed the track of refugees crossing the Aegean Sea and then to Greece, up to its northern border with Macedonia.

That first night of my journey I was on the beach next to the airport of Lesvos. At one o’clock in the morning, the volunteers whom I was accompanying had spotted a boat with refugees coming from Turkey. It was first a dim light in the darkness of the Aegean Sea, only experienced volunteers saw it first, then the light of the boat grew and, at the end, a voice tore through the air: “Boat! Boat!”

The volunteers were from Greece, other European countries and the US. They were mostly young people, but among them there were also some elders and more “professional” volunteers like Nasos, a veteran of the Greek Marine, or like Jose, a professional firefighter from Spain who had gone to Lesvos to help refugees, taking a two-week leave from his job.

The landing of the rubber dinghies packed with people is very dangerous; the refugees are terrorized, most do not know how to swim and when the boats reach the Greek coast they are exhausted. No representative of the state nor of the EU were around to be found, only volunteers who were there to save lives.

When the rubber dinghy approached, volunteer lifeguards entered the water to stabilize it amongst the violent waves and to pull it closer to the beach. Then a human chain formed to bring the refugees from the rubber dinghy to the beach. I was not a volunteer, I was just a journalist who happened to be there. But the power of this human chain was so mesmerizing that I went in the cold waters to become part of it.

At first I thought that she was lightweight and I didn’t put much strength into lifting her from the rubber dinghy and carrying her to the beach. But once I lifted her and she let herself fall in my arms, I suddenly felt like her weight pulverized me. Her body was petrified, her clothes soaking wet.

I put all my strength into it as I began to walk, carrying her through the water to the beach. I repeatedly told her “OK”, stupidly thinking that this would reassure her. Her eyes were hollow, empty, as if she didn’t see what was happening, as if she was not present in all these things happening to her. It was raining heavily that night in Lesvos, loud voices came from everywhere, the faces around me were dancing frantically between the darkness of the night and the violent light of the flashlights.

Rain was falling into my eyes and at times obstructed my vision. But now I know that it was not only rain that was preventing me from seeing clearly throughout the night. It was something deep inside me that was resisting the reality and was slyly whispering that all this cannot be real in Greece and in Europe in 2016.

The young woman I was trying to carry onto the beach suddenly started shouting at me in a language I couldn’t understand persistently pointing to the rubber dinghy. She was shouting and she pinned herself down on the wet sand while I tried to pull her to the point further up the beach where volunteers provided first aid and blankets. Abruptly, a man holding a small child in his arms came towards us and hugged the woman. It was her child that the man was carrying.

I went three more times to the boat, once to carry an old woman who seemed to be so incredibly heavy that she required the help of another volunteer to carry her belongings ashore. When the boat was empty and its wreckage was ingloriously lying on the sand, I distanced myself a bit. I fell on my knees and I cried in the darkness – out of shame as a human being in front of all this suffering and out of rage as a citizen in front of all this moral breakdown of “our” Europe.

* * *

Three days before the terrorist attack in Brussels, the EU had finally reached an agreement with Turkey on the refugee issue. After several hours of haggling and political-diplomatic bargaining, the deal that was decided erected the tombstone of any moral superiority that was left in Europe and our contemporary European civilization.

The agreement is ethically disgraceful as it institutionalized a bargain between European member states in order to keep all these people fleeing the horrors of war and extinction away from “our Europe”. Also, because the EU remains silent in front of the growing authoritarianism under Erdogan, it has shamelessly betrayed all those in Turkey who believed that the EU and its ideals will serve as a beacon for democratic reforms in their own country.

The agreement is legally disgraceful because it violates the basic principles and values of human rights and humanity.

Last, but not least, the agreement is politically offensive. It promises Turkey certain things that the EU does not want to deliver and it asks that Greece and its failed state build an asylum system from scratch that even the most advanced countries in the Union do not have. It is equally shameless because it turns Greece into a huge refugee camp, contradicting once again the idea of European solidarity.

Every political “leader” had his own agenda, his or her own fears that in their own country they will be threatened by the spectacular rise of nationalist and xenophobic forces as well as the desire to avoid doing anything in order to keep the “barbarians” at their country’s gates.

This agreement should not be a surprise. It is yet another symptom of the ethical decay of our continent and of the tragic dereliction of our human values and principles. But it is not the only one.

The decay goes even further, with Donald Tusk begging refugees via his Twitter account to not cross the Aegean Sea because Greece’s northern borders have been sealed. After the disreputable management of the economic crisis, the EU took the last steps that separates it from complete delegitimization.

Europe has raised new walls at its external borders and institutionalizes them with the vain hope that they would “protect” its societies and its eroded systems from their contemporary “barbarians”. We spent five days with these “barbarians” and with the photographer Eleni Papadopoulou, following them from Lesvos to Piraeus and then from Athens to the hell that is Idomeni, right on Greece’s border with Macedonia. There, behind the walls donned with barbed wire, the EU is sinking into a pool of mud and human feces.

Photo: Eleni Papadopoulou

Photo: Eleni Papadopoulou

In Idomeni, when we initially entered while the nightfall was approaching and a light rain was persistently soaking humans and tents, we thought that we were in a science fiction movie, this kind of “end-of-the-world” expensive Hollywood blockbusters. During these last two weeks that I have been traveling in Greece, Turkey and then ultimately in Brussels, I have often felt like I lose the dimension of time and space. It is as if all that I see around me, in my own country and in the EU I so strongly believed in, reemerge directly from our bloody past or come from a nightmarish future.

Idomeni is filled with broken lives and devastated humans, but still enough strength to fight for survival and hope. Volunteers are everywhere, states and institutions represented only by police and about fifteen thousand men, women and children anxiously awaiting the EU Summit on 18 March. Hoping that Europe will open the border and will accept them. That humanity and those ethics are still part of Europe. In vain.

“Waste Land” was also Istanbul the weekend before the attacks in Brussels. On Saturday morning, a suicide bomber from the Islamic State was killed as he was blowing up tourists on the pedestrian avenue of Istiklal, in the heart of Istanbul. This event was yet another terrorist strike in a series of deadly attacks that began last summer.

All through the weekend, the center of Istanbul was empty, people were afraid that all this was just the beginning. This same fear, although the immediate reasons may be different, paralyzed Brussels the day I arrived from Istanbul. With thorough security checks everywhere, people were filled with suspicion and fear. The tall buildings of the EU institutions surrounded by policemen and soldiers were almost empty and suddenly looked like wreckages from an unachieved past.

* * *

From the ashes of this ethical debris of the European civilization and the European project that were born after the Second World War and, in reaction to all the ignominies of that past, the nation-state and its populist hubris are emerging as the big winners.

After the shallow euphoria of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the victory of cosmopolitan progressivism, Europe, under the weight of a broader and profound moral crisis, returns to nationalism, xenophobia and “same blood, same culture” utopias. The nation-state does a violent come-back and is promoted by increasingly larger segments of European societies and “elites” as a panacea for all problems, legitimizing the corrosion –even the blunt violation– of human rights and fundamental principles of liberal societies.

The nation-state, together with an unbridled populism, sets the pace for political and social life in Europe and its neighbors, ferociously resisting the only common solution we should all push for: more Europe.

Tayyip Erdogan’s Turkey is not an exception, there is no “Turkish exception” or “Turkish specificity”. What is happening in Turkey today is the same as what is happening, albeit in different ways and rhythms, in Europe: an extreme strengthening of the nation state and its exclusive idea of “community”, an extreme cultural introversion that, in Turkey, has taken on a Sunni-Turkish character while in European countries it has gradually taken a Judeo-Christian-national character, and an authoritarianism that has roots in western authoritarian traditions and methods. This “cocktail” is heavily spiced with rampant populism, not different in its essence from what is happening in Hungary or Poland, these two countries far from being the only European examples.

The deep moral decadence plaguing Europe and the world around is deeply rooted in chronic economic and social inequalities, but most of all in the prevalence of a broader culture of populism and fascism, as described by Rob Riemen in “The Eternal Return of Fascism”, dominating the mass culture and extinguishing any prospect or aspiration to higher values and ethics.

However, European “leaders” and a large part of European society continue to lie and to be blind, always putting the blame elsewhere: Refugees, Islam, integration models…

While I was opening my suitcase for inspection at the police and army check point at the train station below the European Parliament, I wondered if behind all these terrible attacks in Brussels lies Islam and Islamism and the Belgian integration model.

Or I wonder if the horrible dystopia of the Islamic State that attracts many young people from Europe is a drug for people lost in the dominant nihilism and self-destructive egocentrism promoted by the ethical collapse of the European culture that turns them into apocalyptic aggressors of innocent lives. They are disoriented youth, deep in our contemporary culture of violent egocentrism and immediate gain and recognition, marginalized and full of hate for the “society”. The become easy prey for the “messianic” message of the Islamic State and its promises of ultra-violence and aggressive lust. Beyond all that, there is also an undeniable factor of individual free will and responsibility, that those people who join the Islamic State are responsible for their awful choice and their dreadful acts and there are absolutely no excuses.

The fact that the message has an “Islamic” cover seems to attract more people who come from Muslim families, but this has little to do with Islam per se.

What happens in the case of the Islamic State is not about Islam, but about a universal collapse of ethics and the victory of emptiness. And in that sense, Islam’s role is not lesser than secular or “enlightened” Europe’s – not in the sense of what some people wrongly argue as “religion of violence and intolerance” but as a culture that, despite a deep humanistic tradition, failed to promote a wider ethical superiority, just like the European culture fails to do today.

* * *

The apocalyptic terrorists of the Islamic State and its ideology are operating in the growing space of darkness created by this universal collapse of ethics. Europe, Turkey, the Balkans – we are all on the same course, in the same rubber dinghy crossing dark waters even if we continue to lie to ourselves. But our rubber dinghy is not alone. Somewhere, on a beach through the darkness, there are people trying to help.

All these thousands of young people from across Europe and the world increasingly fill the gaps left by the EU and the nation states. There are numerous activists, new generation ideologues who help refugees in Lesvos and Idomeni, who protest in Brussels against the disgraceful agreement, who demonstrate in Cairo and in Tehran and in Istanbul for more democracy…

These new generations of active and activist transnational citizens are well conversed with social media and the internet and forge on despite the thousands of kilometers separating them, exchanging views and ideas. Of course, all these people are the minority, not all those who ascribe to this new generation are like them, far from it.

After all, the modern jihadis are also part of that same new generation and that is the darkest part. But history has taught us that the road towards humanity is forged by enlightened minorities, not from majorities.

Along with the universal ethical collapse and its various forms, history gives Nemesis and the return of an extreme nation-state as the new antidote: an innovative form of bottom-up transnational citizenship, a progressive and active citizenship that knows no borders, neither geographically nor culturally. And that has already started to make a small difference.


This article by Evangelos Areteos was originally published on 26 March 2016 in Dutch, in the Dutch daily de Volkskrant, and on 27 March 2016 in Greek in the Cypriot daily Politis, as well as on the Roving Correspondents blog. The pictures are courtesy of Eleni Papadopoulou, The article is reproduced here with the author’s permission.


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