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Before the Fall

Greek words have been popping up in my thoughts a lot lately, and it has nothing to do with the Olympic games. It’s kind of like those tunes that get stuck in your head, repeatedly recycling through some musical memory, seemingly out of conscious control. Except, my problem is that instead of music, I have these Greek words repeating through my thoughts. I have noticed that these terms don’t just pop up at random. A pattern seems to be emerging. The Greek seems to be triggered by certain events and individuals.

Hubris. A noun that can be pronounced either HYOO-bris or HOO-bris according to The Columbia Guide to Standard American English. The guide defines this term of Greek origin as “an excessive pride or arrogant overconfidence that often ends in retribution.” Other etymological sources include words and phrases like “wanton violence,” “ insolence,” and “disregard of the rights of others.”

Hubris was a moral concept that played a central role in Greek mythology, theater and in Homer’s Iliad with its skulking Achilles. Some arrogant human says or does something that offends the gods and sets a stage for payback. Sometimes the humans mistakenly placed themselves at the level of the gods. Sometimes they just dissed the gods or claimed to be acting on their behalf without proper license. Other times they commit acts against their fellow humans of such an onerous nature that severe divine intervention was warranted. Retribution was such a big-time operation for the Greeks that they had a separate god who specialized in its delivery. This leads me to another word of Greek origin that has been popping up in my head a lot lately.

Nemesis. She is the Greek goddess of retribution and righteous anger who delivered painful reminders of human mortality to those guilty of hubris. In our current English usage she has lost her proper noun status and linguistically settled down to become the concept of righteous retribution.

The Greeks also saw the idea of hubris as important in the analysis of historic events. Over 2,800 years ago, the historian Thucydides noted that hubris figured in the prolonged and costly war waged by Athens against Syracuse, a settlement on the Mediterranean island of Sicily. The Athenians apparently felt that the distant people of Syracuse were backward bumpkins who could be easily quashed with their superior war technology. It would be a short war and quick victory, many claimed. They were wrong. The fighting went on for years, casualties mounted, and the conflict ultimately contributed to both the Greek Empire’s loss of its foreign land claims and democracy at home. Nemesis exacted some major payback.

It seems that every time I hear George W. and his gang give their latest take on the invasion and occupation of Iraq, “hubris” starts to flash through my neural nets.

When the Bush gang claimed that they were justified in a pre-emptive strike in Iraq due to the presence of weapons of mass destruction that posed a direct threat to this country there was hubris involved. The smirky arrogance with which this was proclaimed as akin to divine right was astounding and reeked of hubris. The continuing claim that these weapons were still to be found inflated this hubris still further. Instead of channeling divine insight and omniscience, George W. now blames the CIA for offering him bad data. The hubris level of the administration rises as they assume they can fool enough of the citizenry to believe this before the November election.

Hubris also abounded in its “wanton violence” mode as George W. launched the war on Iraq. Like the Athenian attack on Syracuse, the Bush War was not over quickly, despite the Mission Accomplished banner hoisted aloft. It has simmered with growing resistance and casualties. The arrogant self-view as liberator has given way to the nemesis of occupier. A conflict without foreseeable end continues to consume lives, families, billions of taxpayer dollars and international respect in a foreign land whose people increasingly see the United States as an evil occupier.

In a recently published book, Imperial Hubris, the anonymous author (a career CIA analyst whose bosses told him he could not reveal his identity) sees another level of hubris pervasive in this administration: According to him, this hubris is the sense that, “the Islamic world fails to understand the benign intent of U.S. foreign policy . . . that America does not need to reevaluate its policies, let alone change them; it merely needs to better explain the wholesomeness of its views and the purity of its purposes to the uncomprehending Islamic world.”

The hubris of George W. has not been limited to Iraq. It has also been displayed in his actions regarding global warming, international nuclear treaties, HIV and his move to develop new and useable nuclear weapons. This hubris reaches into the stratosphere of the absurd when he vigorously condemns those developing weapons of mass destruction, while he pushes for more U.S. WMD production.

Domestically, George W. has wielded his excessive pride to support a severe challenge to the definition of basic freedoms in this country. Ironically, his bundles of Patriot Act legislation have been promoted to protect our freedoms by taking them away. This domestic hubris expanded its “wanton disregard for the rights of others” further as he claimed the authority to imprison U.S. citizens without allowing them access to counsel or courts.

So with all this hubris coming down from the Bush administration shouldn’t we expect some serious domestic nemesis to follow? Will these Greek terms ever recede and stop flashing in my thoughts?

I think a nemesis is coming in the form of the aggregate effects of a simple act each of us over the age of 18 can still engage in: vote. Make sure you and all your friends are registered to vote, and mark Nov. 2 on your calendar as Righteous Retribution Day. A Greek goddess may be smiling somewhere.

—Tom Nattell 


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