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Anger and tragedy in Athens

Athens had been bracing for Wednesday's general strike and protest march — but even the most cynical would have been unlikely to predict how tragic events would turn.

Huge numbers were expected, as were clashes between protesters and police. But the deaths of three bank employees, who were trapped in a building set alight by rioters, has left the nation shocked and shaken.

Tens of thousands of Greeks marched through central Athens Wednesday to protest a government austerity program that will cut the wages of civil servants, increase taxes and push through market liberalization legislation.  The spending cuts and revenue generating efforts are conditions of the bailout Greece is expecting from the IMF and its European partners. 

In Greece, the right to take to the streets is guarded as jealously as free speech is in the United States. Much of the public here generally shrugs about, or even silently applauds, attacks against what are seen as legitimate representatives of American imperialism, evil capitalist entities, or the oppressive state. Petrol bomb attacks against banks, American fast-food outlets, or government offices are near weekly events. 

But protesters crossed an invisible line Wednesday. The three ordinary workers who died — one of them a pregnant woman — were simply doing their jobs. Anger at the austerity plan was growing dangerously, but the deaths may help calm the situation and tip public sentiment back toward the government.