Thursday, June 03, 2004


Spanish Bombs and the Autism of Violence

This was written on March 11th, an immediate response cut short by lack of time. A liitle way below is an update taking into account developments in the last few days.

Possibly March 11th will come to have a similar resonance in Europe and certainly in Spain as September 11th, prompting the discouraging question as to how many days we will be obliged to remember such horrors.

Shortly after hearing of the bombs that have shattered Madrid, a friend and i e-mailed our friend and former colleague who is working there as a primary school teacher. She wrote back:

I am fine but we are all very shaken. One of the bombs that went off was practically next to my friend's flat and the area is cordoned off. The whole city is in shock and there are threats to
the entire public transport system. Over 170 people have been killed. We are trying to get on as usual for the kids but it's not easy.

The figures are staggering - 190 people [198 as of Friday] have died so far and around 1,200 [1,400 as of Friday] are injured. Blood has not been shed on this scale in Spain since the period of the Franco dictatorship and nothing like this has occurred before in the low-level conflict between the Spanish government and the Basque rebels, ETA which has been going off and on since 1968. For Western Europe too, today's massacre is a rare low point in our post-World War II history - the Lockerbie bombing in 1989 or De Gualle's massacre of Algerians in Paris in 1961 being the last episodes on this scale.

The Spanish government, led by Jose Maria Aznar of the conservative Popular Party has been quick, perhaps too quick, to accuse ETA of the slaughter. The Spanish Ministry of the Interior, noting initial findings that the dynamite used in the explosions is of a kind often used by ETA, and that ETA has been attempting a number of bombing operations recently that might have caused comparable deaths if they had succeeded, has supported this view.
That said, Herri Batasuna, the political party identified with ETA - recently made illegal by the Aznar government - has insisted that ETA is not responsible. ETA usually claim repsonsibility for their operations but have not in this case. The Aznar government stands to benefit electorally in Sunday's election if ETA is responsible since it is closely identitified with a hardline stance towards Basque separatists, but if the bombing turns out to be connected to the Spanish government's role in supporting the US military presence in Iraq and South-West Asia generally it stands to lose support from a population which was overwhelmingly opposed to the US invasion of Iraq despite their government's position.
More recently, signs are emerging suggesting that an al-Qai'da-like cell may be the murderers instead, including a letter apparently claiming repsonsibility on behalf of the Abu Mafs al-Masri brigades to the al-Quds al-Arabi newspaper based in London, which receieved similar letters following recent bombings in Istanbul. The letter proclaims that "We have succeeded in infiltrating the heart of crusader Europe and struck one of the bases of the crusader alliance". The letter cannot really be authenticated but it coincides with the discovery of a van in Madrid apparently containing detonators and tapes in Arabic.

So maybe it is a group affiliated with al-Qai'da. Or maybe ETA. Or perhaps not. Presumably there are some people out there who thought that they were doing the right thing by stuffing powerful explosives on crowded commuter trains and detonating them at rush hour without warning, but they haven't bothered to share their motives with those of us who aren't in on the joke, nor have they taken any responsibility for their actions.
It seems a strange gripe to protest at the lack of terrorist etiquette, much as George Orwell once wrote of the "decline of the English murder" noting the low quality of contemporary murders as compared with some of the class acts of the 19th century. But it is not a trivial matter.

On Friday February 17th 1978, the Provisional IRA placed a bomb in the window grille of the La Mons Hotel in County Down. The grotesque device they used was designed to have the same impact as napalm. But the intent of the IRA's team was not to kill. Needless to say, if you put an incendiary bomb in a hotel you are asking for trouble, but the aim was to ring the police and give them enough time to alert those in the hotel to get out, but not enough time to prevent the explosion which would destroy a tourist facility and help drive the cost of the British military presence in Ireland higher.
According the BBC journalist Martin Dillon, writing in his book 'Stone Cold' about the loyalist killer Michael Stone, the PIRA's bombers placed the bomb, set it to detonate and then headed over to a public phone to relay the warning to the RUC. But when they reached the phone, they found it had been vandalised. The bombers quickly rushed off in search of another phone but were stopped at a military checkpoint. After negotiating their way past the British army, they drove up to Belfast and finally rang the police. There were two minutes to spare - no time at all. The bomb went off, killing 12 people, whose charred bodies more resembled the casualties of the US war in Vietnam than the Irish war.
Not for the first time or last time, the PIRA had seriously botched its operation. But two days later, they admitted responsibility and stated:

"[The warning] ...proved totally inadequate given the disastrous consequences. We accept condemnation and criticism from only two sources: from the relatives and friends of those who were accidentally killed, and from our supporters who have rightly and severely criticized us".

This statement did not exactly scale new heights of sincerity or repentence. But it is worth looking at some of its basic elements - the statement acknowledges that burning defenceless civilians to death marks a failure and not a success for the IRA. It acknowledges the suffering of the bereaved and notes that the incident has upset their support base and prompted major disagrements within the organisation. All in all, those who issued such a statement recognised that they inhabit the same moral universe as the rest of us and realise that after the bombing they had to respond with some contrition.

Compare that with the response so far by whoever commissioned the carnage in Madrid. There has been no statement, there was no warning, there was never any visible intention of sparing anyone's life.
The March 2nd bombings of Iraqi Shias in Karbala are another case in point. Almost 200 people were killed. Who did it? What for? What was the point? What did they think they were doing? What did they hope would come about from the slaughter? What do they want? The truth is, that beyond the charmed cirle of perpetrators, a number of whom killed themselves in order to kill others, no one else has a damn clue. The citizens of Karbala are left guessing - and hosing the blood off their streets.
As the German Marxist writer Hans Magnus Enzensberger notes, many of today's practitioners of political violence are defined by their sheer autism - their total self-involvement and apparent inability to show empathy or understanding of anything beyond a narrow set of concerns. They struggle to engage with the outside world and often do not bother - their elaborate names:

"...cannot disguise the fact that no goal, no plan, no idea binds them together other than the strategy ... of death and destruction... What gives today's civil wars a new and terrifying slant is the fact that they are waged without stakes on either side, that they are wars about nothing at all. value is attributed to life - either to one's own or to the lives of one's opponents..."

One of the tasks of the emerging global justice movement must be precisely to challenge that "autism of violence", to keep alive belief in universal values, against all their opponents

If the Spanish government is correct in accusing ETA of the bombing, then attention must return to a serious resolution of the conflict in the Basque country. Today Aznar has openly stated that there can be no negotiations with ETA or Herri Batasuna, which is a bad start. The Aznar government, which it should be said is a very bad government undeserving of victory in Sunday's poll, has used the political climate after September 2001 to suppress militant Basque nationalism, banning Herri Batasuna, banning a documentary on the conflict, shutting down a Basque-language newspaper (Euskladunon Egunkaria) and arresting ten of its staff and squashing proposals for a referendum on the extension of Basque autonomy.

ETA tried to kill Aznar in 1995 - as with Margaret Thatcher and the IRA, or with Sharon and Arafat, this is quite a personal fight. And there are other elements to the Spanish governement's war with ETA. Today's London Independent was published too late to cover today's bombing. Their story instead is "UN says Spain tortured Eta 'terrorists'". A Dutch human rights specialist, Theo van Boven, issued a short report into the use of torture in the Baque country by the Spanish police. He described the torture as "not systematic" but "more than sporadic and incidental. The report listed a number of forms of torture used ranging from the usual beatings, threats and sleep deprivation techniques to harsher methods such as asphyxiation of prisoners with plastic bags.
The Spanish government declared that the UN report was inaccurate and to be ignored. They issued a dossier of denial almost four times longer than the original report and made clear that thought they were prepared to accept further UN investigation, there was not about to be a serious change in policy. But the UN is not alone in its condemnation of police torture in Spain - Amnesty International called for reforms to prevent torture and the dropping charges against journalists who were accused of fabricating torture claims on ETA's behalf exactly one year ago today, March 11th, 2003.

For more on the Basque conflict, see this article.
Another World is Desirable

Since writing the above, a few things have changed. ETA have strongly denied responsibility for the bombing and a video from al-Qa'ida has emerged in which they claim responsibility from someone who claims to be in charge of their operations in Europe. Although it is still not clear, the argument that some group connected to al-Qa'ida was responsible seems much stronger than the counter-argument. Meanwhile, the death toll carried on rising to 200 and the number of people with injuries is now thought to be 1,500.
The Spanish people have also responded. They responded by taking to the streets in their millions on Friday night in a quiet and dignified protest against what was done to them. And they appear today to be repsonding in the poll booths by punishing the government that took them into the war in Iraq and was so quick to pin the blame ETA precisely to avoid the claim that they had made Spain a target for al-Qa'ida. It looks like people in Spain are not responding to the massacre with chauvinism or anti-Muslim racism, and not even with renewed enthusiasm for a military solution. It is a statement to the Bush administration as well as the devotees of Bin Laden - people around the world are getting more than sick of both of you.

The messages so far received from groups claiming to be affiliated with or part of al-Qa'ida, presuming they are what they purport to be (which is not easy to tell - professional at killing these people may be, but at communications they are not), are horrible acts of gloating. The statement sent to the London-based Arabic newspaper informed us:

The death squad [their words] succeeded in penetrating the crusader European depths and striking one of the pillars of the crusader alliance - Spain - with a painful blow. These bomb attacks were part of settling old scores with the crusader Spain for its war against Islam.
Where is America to protect you today, Aznar? Who is going to protect you, Britain, Italy, Japan and other hirelings from us? When we hit Italian troops in Nasirya
[Iraq] and sent you and other hirelings a warning to withdraw from the alliance against Islam, you did not comprehend our warning – now we have made it clear - we hope that it will be understood this time.
We in Abu Hafs al-Masri did not feel sad for the death of the so-called civilians. Is it lawful for them to kill our children, women, elderly and men in Afghanistan, Iraq, Palestine, and Kashmir, and is unlawful for us to kill them back?

There are several obvious responses. Among them - groups rather like al-Qa'ida are not at all adverse to killing civilians, children, women and elderly in Afghanistan, Iraq or Kashmir when it suits them, as it frequently has done. The people of Afghanistan are in fact rather anxious to be rid of such people - see The people of Madrid were not "so-called civilians" - and they were among the most militantly anti-war people in Europe and patently did not deserve what they got even in the sick logic of the perpetrators.
It continues:

Stop targeting us, release our prisoners, and leave our land, we will stop attacking you. The people of US allied countries have to put pressure on their governments to immediately end their alliance with the US in the war against terror (Islam). If you persist we will also continue… We want to tell you that the Death Smoke squad will reach you soon, and then you will see your dead in their thousands – God willing… This is a warning…

Many of us in the European left have been trying to put pressure on our governments precisely to stop supporting US foreign policy aims, to pursue justice in the Middle East, to end human rights abuses against Muslims at home and abroad and to find a way to peace and we have built a huge movement. The Spanish left was at the very forefront of this struggle and they will probably continue to be despite everything.
But al-Qa'ida should be equally assured that the left has a quarrel with them - we oppose their vengeful slaughter of civilians, we oppose their brutal sectarianism towards Shia Muslims, and we oppose the particualry vicious brand of totalitarianism that they wish to impose on the world's Muslims, of whom they pretend to be the liberators. I have met a couple of their victims from September 11th - they were kind-hearted people who did not wars fought or barbarism inflicted in their names. But they do expect to see the surviving murderers of their family members and friends answer for their crimes against humanity in a proper, international tribunal. And maybe one day, they will get just that (stopping the US government undermining the International Criminal Court would be a start). These people should answer for what they have done in front of their victims - not as martyrs, not as political prisoners, not as terrorists, but as people who have commissioned crimes against our common humanity.

As for the war on terrorism - well Dick Cheney, Tony Blair and others did say it would take years. Maybe decades. Maybe a whole century. Then we would finally have defeated terrorism forever after however many deaths in the great cities of the West or in the countries of South-West Asia, Central Asia, the Indian subcontinent, South-East Asia and Africa our governments are prepared to accept - a pretty large figure, we can reasonably expect. It seems however, that they did not take into the account the fact that the people of this planet don't want decades of atrocity and counter-atrocity - that people might just get sick of being afraid all the time. Aznar and the Spanish conservatives are being voted down today because people are waking up to the stupidity of the Bush administration's policy and the endless war he proposes. Intelligence and decency are making some headway - and politicians the world over will be in trouble if they can't stop it. Another world is possible and also highly desirable.

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