Athens (and what I saw there)

The World Congress of Philosophy concluded this past Saturday in Athens. This year’s theme was Philosophy as Inquiry and Way of Life. It’s a theme that is tailored to the strengths of the event. For any who are interested in seeing how philosophy is a living and global practice, the Congress is essential. This year’s Congress was also host of a significant number of Big Name Philosophers, and hence was also an attraction for philosophers whose interests are more provincially-minded.

While there were plenty of interesting talks that are worth reporting on (both good and not so good), I would prefer to take a moment to make a few personal remarks about what I saw in Athens. [Hat tip to commenters at Feminist Philosophers for the idea and encouragement.]


I arrive on Saturday. It is hot and arid. Looking out of my hotel window, I am at first startled by the view. The landscape looks like an overexposed photograph. The buildings are crumbling and saturated with graffiti.

Greek society is in turmoil, their government put under administration. An unhinged neo-Nazi party known as the Golden Dawn is gaining power and popularity. I make friends with one of my fellow speakers. He fills me in on the details behind Operation Zeus, a heavy-handed effort to jail ostensibly undocumented migrants at detention centres. Heavily armed officers are stationed near tourist havens and government buildings.


I decide to take a walk. It’s not until I am a few blocks away from my hotel that I notice the barking. I turn around and see that a dog has followed me all the way along my journey. The dog looks as though she is barking at any pedestrians who get too close to me. When I turn to go back to the hotel, the dog races back to reassume her place across the road, presumably to keep watch. My little protector.

The week is beautiful. The hotel is nice, and I feel reasonably safe. The people of Greece are down-to-earth, and Athens glows at night. I see the Acropolis and the temple of Apollo up close. I swallow salt water from the Aegean Sea and wash it down with iced coffee. I am genuinely happy.

Somewhere along the way, I overhear a little girl say, “It’s hot and like a dream.” I know what she means.


But even the best of dreams have a nightmarish quality to them. The people of Greece are understandably angry, and self-aware about their anger. Most cab drivers have harsh things to say about Germany and Angela Merkel. There is also no shortage of acrimony about their own Euro-imposed government, and plenty reserved for the socialist government that led them into the collapse. (As one cab driver who spoke virtually no English memorably repeated: “Boo to Papandreou“.) The people suffer and depend on tourists with Euros.


Friday evening. About forty professional philosophers were traipsing merrily around the ruins of the Lyceum. While moseying around the ruins my eye caught a hold of a black rock. I picked it up and cleaned off the grass and dirt. It was thin, long, with a concave blackened surface. The edge had the colour of clay. A shard of ancient pottery.


We should not have been allowed to walk in the pit. There should have been velvet ropes and armed guards and signs, but for whatever reason — and whatever the consequences — we were allowed to walk the grounds.

Standing there in the 34 degree heat, in the dust, listening to cicadas and sprinklers and the bustling of Athens in the background. Eventually, my new Greek friend forces me to return it to the dirt. But for a moment I was immobile, transfixed. It felt right to hold onto that little bit of history as long as I could.

The sound of an exasperated voice over the speaker system is enough to break my from the reverie. “Please don’t step on the ancient wall,” a droll voice says to some naughty wanderer.



Does anyone know what this might be?

I get out of the cab into the heat, clad in a white Canadian hat and a World Congress of Philosophy lanyard around my neck. I look up at the impassive but modern-looking government building — the Kentrikou detention centre. It appears deserted. A few towels hang from the windows, but otherwise it is devoid of life.

Then I pull out my camera and start taking pictures of the empty exterior. At that point a policeman appears out of nowhere and asks me what I’m doing.

I tell him I’m interested in seeing the migrants in the facility. I say I’m writing a story about how Greece is handling the austerity crisis. The guard smiles. “Greece is on fire,” he says. I’m not sure he is referring to the weather.

He radios up and asks permission to let me in, and I am denied entry.

Just then, I look up and see some arms moving in one of the windows. I carefully step back into the street, onto public space, and snap some photos. In the first photo, it looks as though a detainee is showing me a card of some kind. Two faces emerge from behind bars, both visibly happy for my attention.

The fact that I have taken photos of actual detainees seems to have changed the parameters of the situation. At that point, the guard says: “Wait just a moment. Someone is coming to see you to take you upstairs.”
Sure enough, a burly Greek comes down. His hand is on the butt of his pistol. He exchanges words with the guard. Eventually they decide that I’m not a terrorist, and I’m told to follow the burly Greek. I’m led inside. I pull out my camera to take some interior shots, and am immediately told to put it away: “This is a military facility.”

Inside, I meet some bureaucrats who are watching television. I notice little things: a shitty photocopier, a pile of traffic cones. They ask me for my papers. I give them my Canadian driver’s license.

While they decide what to do with me, I’m led into a dirty white room. The room is bare, apart from a table, some benches, and a desk for the cop in charge. There is measuring tape on the wall and handprints all over the wall behind me. I figure that it is the processing area where migrants have their fingerprints taken.

Not liking the direction in which matters were headed, I quietly removed the microchip from my digital camera and hid it in my pocket. Just in case they decide to start confiscating my things.

Eventually I am led back to the bureaucrats. I am told that I need an appointment in order to interview any migrants. I am given a number to call to arrange an appointment. Then I am invited to leave.

I suppose I picked the right place to visit. Later that day, on the other side of the city, the Amygdaleza detention centre broke into a riot.


I saw my protector dog again that day. This time it was up close. Her eyes are bloodshot to the point where they look like they are bleeding. She lay in the street baking in the hot sun. I pour some water for her, and she doesn’t move. I worry that she might be dying.


  1. A fascinating piece of writing. For my own part I would not have been so free with my camera as you. One word from the policeman would have been enough to send me nodding and smiling apologetically and hurrying on my way. Did it never occur to you, you may been putting in your head into the lion’s mouth to venture inside the building? With respect I cannot decide whether you are a braver person than I, or less discreet. Of course I do not know what I’m talking about, for the simple fact I was not there, and you of course were the man on the spot.

  2. I’d be the wrong person to judge. I can only say that I felt reasonably safe in that context in part I was decked out in all of my tourist paraphernalia. I also made a series of good-will gestures. I offered to let them search me, for example.

    FWIW, I think the people I photographed are the bravest ones in the situation. Goodness knows what will happen to them. I’m just some dork with a camera.

  3. Ben:

    Generally, having a Canadian passport protects you. However, sometimes it doesn’t.

  4. BLS Nelson,

    There’s a good chance you were breaking the law. In many countries it’s illegal to photograph the exterior of a prison, and the Greeks have espionage laws, they occasionally arrest tourists for inadvertently photographing military installations. If the building was designated as a military facility, you were breaking the law.

    While you were in the room, was there an exchange in Greek that you didn’t quite get, as in it was all Greek etc, that maybe went something like this:

    “Well what do you think? Is he a criminal, a spy?”

    “No, I think he is an idiot”

    “Are you sure?,,It could be a cunning disguise”

    “No,,this man is a genuine idiot,,,,what’s he doing now?”

    “I think he wants you to touch him”

    “Get him out of here!!!”

    Ben, you’ve got the spying thing down.

  5. I’m sure I would not have taken the photos it if I had been advised that it was a military facility before having taken them, and advised of the law at that time. However, that is not how things happened. I took the photos in full view of a guard and no attempt was made to stop me, so I had reasonable cause to believe that I was in full compliance with the law.

    And then there’s the whole morals thing. You know, the question of what to do when detained migrants are waving at me while I’m the only one around holding a camera.

  6. A nice way of describing an otherwise disheartening situation. You were justified to assume the legality of your act. Yet even if the guard did try to prevent you from shooting pictures, the fact remains that paperless immigrants are detained. May I assume that the World Congress of Philosophy was of a higher standard, at least in terms of organization?

  7. Re Ben Nelson
     “I can only say that I felt reasonably safe “
    Personally I don’t do ‘reasonably safe’ in the kind of situation which currently holds in Athens. In such a state of affairs advantage is often taken to settle old grudges and the law of the land loosens its grip, again giving advantage to those who will either ignore it, or enforce it unnecessarily. You could be detained for a mere triviality as the fancy takes them. Had you been observed tampering with your camera suspicion would certainly have been aroused. Visit and photograph places where you know for sure you and others are welcome.
    Remember spies never look like spies they look quite innocent, and have documentation to substantiate it, and the people who interviewed you are quite aware of that.

  8. Athens [Repost] | Benjamin Lee Samuel Nelson - pingback on August 15, 2013 at 4:59 pm
  9. “May I assume that the World Congress of Philosophy was of a higher standard, at least in terms of organization?”

    The Congress itself was productive but a bit chaotic. e.g., at one of the sessions I attended, the chair and most of the panellists failed to show up. Still, this kind of thing is to be expected given the scale of the event.

  10. Maybe the situation in the streets of Athens lent itself to more vital philosophical reflection than did the Congress itself.

    “When a man knows that he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully”. Samuel Johnson

    The same goes for almost being arrested by fascist police in a foreign country.

  11. I wasn’t arrested or detained. I asked to go inside to see the detainees, and they went through the motions. They treated me quite well.

    I do not hesitate to say that the experiences at the Lyceum and the detainment facility were themselves more vital stimulus for philosophy than the conference itself, if accent is placed on the word ‘vital’. Though it may be worth some hesitation. The session in which I gave my presentation featured a bunch of talks on the philosophy of law and political philosophy which were quite instructive and topical in the context.

  12. Ben:

    You comment above (August 14, 6:55 PM) “then there’s the whole morals thing”…

    You made a moral judgment that the right thing to do was to take photos.

    You do not specify whether you made that moral judgment on consequentialist grounds or Kantian grounds or virtue ethic grounds or all of the above or none of the above.

    Generally, in such situations one does not calculate the possibilities of being arrested and missing the conference against the good that one’s participation in the conference will contribute to philosophy seen in a long-term prospective.

    Still, there’s a real vital philosophical question of ethics there.

    In Sartre’s novel, the Reprieve, the protagonist, Mathieu, a philosophy professor who has spent the whole book so far and the preceding one (the Reprieve is the 2nd of a trilogy) avoiding ethical commitments because has to think things over, sees a crowd about to beat up a youth shouting pacifist slogans in the street, says to himself, “it’s no concern of mine” and then deciding somehow that it is his concern, intervenes to save the boy.

    I think that the decision or realization that something is one’s concern or that it concerns one often is a key to such situations.

  13. BLS Nelson,

    I’m sure I would not have taken the photos it if I had been advised that it was a military facility before having taken them, and advised of the law at that time.

    Ignorantia juris non excusat

    It’s a legal principle you should familiarise yourself with – especially if you intend getting up to things.

    The Greek law in not being allowed to photograph military installations is not a law most tourists would know. It’s rare that they charge tourists, but occasionally they do – but it’s rare because it generally causes an international embarrassment. (The Greeks do not have an appetite for more international embarrassment as it is). A few years back they charged a group of English plane spotters with espionage. They didn’t understand why a group of nerds would travel all the way to Greece, to photograph planes taking off and landing, and jotting down the event in note books – the concept of the anorak is beyond Greek imagination. But sometimes the anoraks see something they were not meant to see*

    However, that is not how things happened. I took the photos in full view of a guard and no attempt was made to stop me, so I had reasonable cause to believe that I was in full compliance with the law.

    No. They don’t have to stop you, or advise you that you might be about to break the law.

    And to be arrested and detained they do not need to witness you committing a crime. They just need reasonable suspicion, that you’re up to something. If the look at you, they’re suspicious. If they talk to you, they’re getting reasonably suspicious. And if you say something really stupid, you can find yourself arrested and charged with something. And you have to be careful, some places have catch-all Jim-Crow-anti-working-class-or-anyone-who-looks-a-little-weird laws. There are states in the US where they can charge you with driving under the influence, when you’re nowhere near a car, and they have no proof that you’re under the influence of anything.

    In North Virginia, even though there are bars that would look to the reasonable person to be completely legal, and that are legal. Any form of public intoxication is completely illegal. And the police, if they want to be assholes, can and do, not even at the request of the bar owner, enter a pub and arrest whoever they find on the stools. A reasonable person could assume that having a beer in a bar ain’t crime hanging or otherwise.

    Police are not assholes by default, but some are by nature. Like the possession of tools or knives. In some jurisdictions the police are allowed to charge you if they think you have these tools with a criminal intent. Like a farmer I knew who was charged for having a glove compartment full of knives. Every farmer, I have ever known, had a glove compartment full of knives. Because they are an absolutely essential tool in farming – unless people are to be expected to cut bailing twine with their teeth.

    *What did the anoraks see? During the last decade, when the good ole USofA was fighting the war against terror. Allegations were made that they were traveling to countries and extra-judicially seizing people, bagging their heads, bundling them onto planes bound for lands where there are no laws – “freedom” lands. The Americans initially denied this; America, a nation of laws, and not torturers and criminals…..And besides there were no records of these flights….No records that is apart from the notebooks of the anoraks….Who were fascinated by these unscheduled planes, that would land in the dead of night, under the cover of darkness, and then spirit themselves and their cargo away…

  14. JM et al., although I am flattered by all the attention being paid to me and my counterfactual well-being, I would think that concentrating on the actual human rights crisis would be more appropriate. I did a thing that I thought was right, in the context in which a right thing needed to be done, and now that thing is done. Ignorance of the law may be no excuse, but the same goes for moral law.

    SWally, my default moral convictions are expressed reasonably well by something like Mill’s utilitarianism, and I think the act was in line with those convictions. But I would be lying if I said that I was thinking about Mill at the time. The experience was one where I was overtaken by sympathy and a sense that I would feel ashamed if I did nothing.

  15. Sometimes for our own self survival we need to do nothing, and this often is accompanied with a feeling of being ashamed. Better ashamed than dead perhaps, although cowardice on the battlefield must be a terrible burden to carry. I think any shame you may have felt would soon have dissipated particularly were you a young man with a young family.Whatever the case, whether you entered the building or not, you have done something by telling us, and no doubt others, what you saw.

  16. BLS Nelson,

    “I would think that concentrating on the actual human rights crisis would be more appropriate.”

    It’s not a single crisis, it’s a multitude of crises. To take a single issue, a complaint of the detainees is they are receiving inadequate food. To completely leave aside why they are being detained in the first place. Why are they not getting enough food. Other complaints are, they are not getting simple items like soap, or being allowed to wash themselves or their clothes regularly. A trigger for the riot in the Amygdaleza camp, seems to have been the guards switching off the detainees electricity, when the detainees tried to use their air-conditioning. (This claim is on Amnesty Int site).

    The food, soap, and air-conditioning, does not sound to me like a deliberate act of cruelty on behalf of the guards. Though in Joe Arpaoi’s Tent City in Arizona, it very definitely is. It sounds like the Greek detention services do not have enough money to run these centres.

    Why are they being detained in the first place? Greek xenophobia. They literally invented the word. To placate the racist masses who believe all their problems originate from a trickle of migrants, politicians have instituted harsh detention, ostensibly to discourage the arrival of new migrants. (A third to a half of Arpaio’s detainees are migrants being “processed”; a euphemism for punished, before being deported). The Greeks are even absurdly punishing children, who are to be deported.

    Did Angela Merkle force the Greeks to detain asylum seekers and irregular migrants and then not feed them, and cut off their electricity. She didn’t. Is there any quick or easy solution – Merkle waving a magic money wand will not make Greek racism vanish. In many countries asylum seekers are not detained. They given accommodation, food, and even a little money. This is far far cheaper than barbed wire and prisons. Generally, they do not commit crime or spread diseases. In the imagination of the Greeks they do. And over the last few years they’ve been victims of NeoNazi pogroms.

    But it is a complete myth that migrants are deterred by harsh treatment, and that they make rational decisions to pick more lenient and humane jurisdictions. Countries in Europe that are a “soft touch” by comparison are not seeing their borders overwhelmed, by “free loaders”, looking for an easier ride.

    The over all situation is twisted Gordian knot, and there isn’t a sword that can cut it.

    Mike LaBossiere, wrote a piece the other day on deporting (this is even the internal deportation) homeless people from American states to their state of origin. The basis of this is different states have different welfare regimes. And a cop friend of Mike’s told him that when he asked a homeless man from out of state why he came to Maine, the homeless man said “for all the free stuff”. I looked up the figures for Maine, and there are less than 300 in the entire state. It’s not credible that many would be from out of state. That cop for whatever reason tells that story….where do these stories end.

    In the 1930s only 2% of the population of Germany were Jews. Hitler literally had to go out of state, to get enough Jews to persecute.

    There are more homeless men within a mile radius of my house than there are in the state of Maine. A myth that they’re dirty, and choose to live on the streets for all the “free stuff”, because they’re too lazy to work – not like an honest cop, in a pressed uniform, and air-conditioned patrol vehicle. (after all if they wanted to work they’d just have to show up at the police station and they’d be handed a uniform, badge and gun). But it’s a comforting myth if you want to disavow your responsibility towards other human beings in need. The men who live on the streets around me are mostly confused, traumatised – some are a pain in the ass. To me they’re familiar – to some people they’re a revolting and disturbing spectacle, but so are grossly overweight wealthy tourists. The homeless men are not asking them to stay in their hotels, or have them deported.

    “I did a thing that I thought was right, in the context in which a right thing needed to be done, and now that thing is done.”

    I think the prison staff may have wanted you to see the detention centre. They are giving tours and there is some horrible stuff on Youtube.

    The one concession for the children’s detention centre is they have “the nicest prison wardens in Greece”. It’s a disaster waiting for a catastrophe to happen.

    “Ignorance of the law may be no excuse, but the same goes for moral law.”

    If law is derived from moral ignorance, or conscious evil, you’re not morally obliged to observe it. You may even be morally compelled to break it.

    All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is good men do nothing.

  17. JM, It seems a bit too pat to say that the detainments are happening because of Greek xenophobia. Obviously, some kind of xenophobia is part of it. But the xenophobia is arguably quite selective, since there is a default surface warmth shown to tourists carrying Euros. As I think you would agree, one must be more specific.

    In order to make sense of this, you have to look to the international context. One factor, for instance, is the [state’s] belief that rich white tourists want to avoid members of a diaspora and/or members of the trans community. (Which is deeply tragic.) It’s also worth noting that the American alert level for terrorism went up in that week, advising Americans to avoid travel to the middle east and Africa due to an impending Al Qaeda attack. Greece is part of neither region, but the borders are thought to be significantly porous, and hence might be seen as a potential target, and hence reason to crack down and double down on efforts to regulate the population.

    “If law is derived from moral ignorance, or conscious evil, you’re not morally obliged to observe it. You may even be morally compelled to break it.”

    Speaking of Gordian knots…! While statements of this sort feel right to me, they are also consistent with an endorsement of vigilantism. I support the notion of state as republic, and citizen as participant in their government. But I’m not a vigilantist.

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