Note the juxtaposition of stories this week. In Greece, a police officer was convicted of murder and sentenced to life imprisonment for the killing of a teenager that set off riots in Athens in 2008. Meanwhile in Australia, we agonise over whether to impose any criminal liability at all on military personnel, even those accused of shooting children.

I can’t think of a single case in modern times when an Australian soldier or police officer has been convicted of murder for actions committed while on duty. Even convictions for manslaughter are all but impossible to obtain, even when the evidence seems overwhelming. The long record of unsuccessful prosecutions for police brutality tells the same story.

The Greeks seem to have no such problems. Fifteen-year-old Alexandros Grigoropoulos had been part of an “altercation” with police in which missiles were thrown, and an autopsy suggested he may have been hit by a ricocheting bullet — ample evidence on which an Australian jury would have acquitted. (Google “Palm Island” if you don’t believe me.) But as the BBC reported at the time of the 2008 riots, “Rebellion is deeply embedded in the Greek psyche.”

This is a genuine cultural difference. Our police and military are not protected by some sinister elite conspiracy; jurors repeatedly refuse to convict, and Alan Jones, who foments hatred against a prosecutor who dares to lay charges against soldiers, has a wide popular following. The public desperately wants to believe that those employed to protect us can be relied on: that the men with guns are “us”, not “them”.

But that doesn’t mean that politicians who fan the flames of authoritarianism are blameless. Which brings us to Tony Abbott, who yesterday told Alan Jones that the prosecution of two soldiers — “our boys”, as he put it — for alleged war crimes in Afghanistan could be seen as “soldiers being stabbed in the back by their own government”.

Anyone who doesn’t understand why that’s a dangerous form of words to use could start with the Wikipedia entry on “Stab-in-the-back legend”. Abbott is much too intelligent and well-read to not know what he’s saying; he is quite consciously cultivating a myth of disloyalty at the top, and urging the public to side with the unelected rank-and-file of the armed forces against the elected government and the rule of law.

Cultural differences do not just come out of nowhere; myths have to start somewhere. The Weimar republic was overwhelmingly popular at first, and peace and demilitarisation were supported by most of the German public. But right-wing politicians assiduously promoted their tales of the stab-in-the-back and similar myths, and eventually won over a large part of the population — with fatal consequences for themselves as well as others.

Greece, too, has been through the experience of fascist occupation and military dictatorship. Its citizens know where unconditional allegiance to the military can take them, and they are determined not to go back there.

Australians, for all our supposed larrikanism and disdain for authority, have no such experience. Nor should we particularly want to emulate many features of Greece’s political culture. But respect for the armed forces should not trump our respect for law, and Abbott is playing with fire when he suggests otherwise.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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