Savvas Xiros and the Greek-American Relations

04/24/2015 02:19 pm ET | Updated Jun 24, 2015

The characteristic pathologies of two dysfunctional states allow "Revolutionary Organization 17 November" to keep damaging U.S.-Greek relations 13 years after 17N's collapse in July 2002. Ambassador Pearce's press statement regarding the release of convicted 17N member Savvas Xiros ("a profoundly unfriendly act") is the most vigorous public U.S. Embassy intervention in Greek politics since the Athens Olympics in 2004. So how concerned should Greeks be about the future of Greek-U.S. relations if Xiros indeed goes home wearing an ankle bracelet?

This is an unnecessary crisis, of course. The humanitarian issue of Xiros's medical condition could have been handled within the existing legal framework were the Greek justice system not in a state of semi-collapse. Even the Colonels accepted the principle of Greek (though not U.S.) jurisprudence, that prisoners, including bomb-planting revolutionaries, should be released if their imprisonment causes "incurable harm" («ανήκεστη βλάβη») to their health. This is a provision that has been abused, for example to release Grigoris Michalopoulos, the notorious publisher/extortionist who had a note from his cardiologist. But Xiros's disabilities, not all of them the result of the bomb that blew up in his hands, are real.

Since judicial officials shrink from such difficult decisions, the Tsipras government drafted a law that takes responsibility for Xiros's release away from them. By so doing, Syriza hoped to reassure its internal opposition that it still loved the Revolution no matter how ardently Finance Minister Varoufakis might flirt with Christine Lagarde. But the gesture triggered an instinctive overreaction from a superpower still deeply irrational 14 years after 9/11.

The excuse offered by State Department spokesperson Harf for the blistering American reaction, that Xiros "would be in a position to resume terrorist plotting and planning," is fairly stupid. More than half the known members of 17N are out of jail already, and all of them are now docile good citizens. Xiros's current obsessions, at least his public ones, are not revolutionary. Sending home a mostly blind, somewhat deaf, partly mangled, and mystically addled icon painter will not encourage more terrorist attacks on U.S. interests.

One reason for overreaction is that the Embassy's diplomatic staff has turned over three times since 17N was arrested. The current incumbents may be unaware that 17N was convicted on the basis of confessions signed by Savvas Xiros and his brothers. Those confessions are not complete or truthful -- we do not really know who pulled the trigger in 17N's 23 murders -- but we do know they were extracted through an unofficial promise of more lenient treatment than 17N's crimes deserved. The cruelest way to neutralize Xiros as a revolutionary would be to respect that promise and thereby underscore the importance of his role in informing on his comrades.

A key task of the Greek or any state that sincerely wishes to eliminate terrorism is to demonstrate that its justice is superior to that offered by its foes. The failure of the Greek state to punish Junta torturers adequately opened a political window for 17N in 1975. Allowing Xiros's family to assume responsibility for his medical care would be a small but useful gesture, one that stands in pointed contrast to the callous indifference with which 17N selected and murdered its victims. We should not underestimate the impact of such magnanimity on young men who have been indoctrinated to treat the state simultaneously as predator and prey.

Americans are not interested in the effectiveness argument. They are encouraged to believe, against masses of countervailing evidence (including an anti-U.S. bomber named Kostas Simitis), that there is a specific category of human beings called terrorists who, like the zombies in video games, must be ruthlessly exterminated. And the families of the American victims are naturally grateful to be told their legitimate grief and anger are a patriotic sentiment. For bureaucrats and politicians to thrive, such anger must be seen to have consequences.

In the short-term, U.S. anger at the home confinement of Savvas Xiros will translate into an increase in the political cost to the Obama administration of continuing to treat Greece as a valued ally. The U.S. counterterrorism community can afford to be spiteful, since Greece -- with a negligible terrorism profile these days -- is an expendable partner. If a clash occurs over Ukraine sanctions and Russia's economic leverage, the bureaucratic coalition against Greece will become dangerously powerful. One early casualty could be Greece's continued participation in the visa waiver program, a painful measure for the U.S. Embassy but one justifiable by Greek migration statistics.

The important point to remember is that the United States cares far more about the health of the European Union and the global financial system than it does about Greece. If the Tsipras government continues to seem aggressively ambivalent about its desire for rescue within that system, the U.S. government will watch from the sidelines as it sinks. In this larger context, the release or not of Savvas Xiros should be seen by all sides as a trivial footnote.

This post was originally published on HuffPost Greece and was translated into English.