Spain’s Response

11 March 2004

Spain’s Response

By Gwynne Dyer

Taking the relative size of Spain and the United States into account, Thursday’s terrorist atrocities in Madrid amounted to about half a 9/11: almost 200 dead and over 1,400 injured in a population of less than 40 million. Spain’s people and government are very angry, and they want to see the terrorists punished. They also want to be safe — but not at any cost.

There are claims that the attacks were the work of al-Qaeda, although at the time of writing the Spanish government still believes that the bombs were planted by the Basque separatist group ETA. Let us assume for the moment that it really was ETA’s doing. Here are three things that the Spanish government will not do, no matter who is running it after Sunday’s election.

First, it will not declare ‘war’ on the ETA terrorists and send the Spanish army in to occupy the Basque provinces of northern Spain. Dealing with terrorists will remain a job for the police and intelligence services, operating within the normal confines of Spanish law.

Secondly, it will not arrest thousands of Basques suspected of supporting ETA and whisk them away to a prison camp in some out-of-the-way place where they will be beyond the reach of the Spanish courts, and can be held indefinitely without any proof of wrongdoing.

Thirdly, it will not invade and occupy the neighbouring Basque-speaking provinces of France, just across the Pyrenees, even though Basque militants over the years have made much use of that sanctuary to rest, re-arm, and plan new attacks.

In other words, the Spanish government will not lose its balance. A terrible thing has happened, but it knows that responding with illegal violence and repression would just drive lots of innocent and law-abiding Basques into the terrorists’ camp. It also knows that while Thursday’s attacks killed about one in 200,000 of the Spanish population — compared to one in 100,000 Americans who died in 9/11 — that is still not a tragedy big enough to justify turning the whole country upside down.

Why does the entire Spanish political class, right and left alike, think like this? Because in 36 years of dealing with relentless ETA terrorist attacks, they have learned a good deal about fighting terrorism. There were serious abuses of civil rights by governments in Madrid at times, and at one point there was even a ‘dirty war’ of targeted assassinations against ETA leaders, but as time passed almost everybody in Spanish public life realised that the important thing in fighting terrorists is to KEEP LIFE AS NORMAL AS POSSIBLE. Do not overreact, do not break your own laws, and never, never let the terrorists seem more important or dangerous than they really are.

Right now, the rest of Europe is hoping that the attack in Madrid really was carried out by ETA and not by al-Qaeda, because in that case it is a purely Spanish problem. If it should turn out to be al-Qaeda, however, they will not turn their countries upside down in a vain attempt to make them safe. They will tighten security where it can be done without disrupting daily life — and they should probably do a bit of that even if it wasn’t al-Qaeda this time – but they understand that you cannot prevent every terrorist attack, and should not make that the standard by which you measure a policy’s success.

They will respond this way because they have learned that you can live with terrorism. Indeed, you may have to live with it for long periods from time to time, and get on with the rest of your life regardless, because terrorism is the natural weapon of weak but fanatically determined groups. There will always be some of those around, and some of their attacks are bound to get through.

Terrorism is a technique, not an ideology. It is equally available to the extreme left and the extreme right, to religious and to secular fanatics, to national minorities of every kind — and Europe has seen them all. Britain had the IRA, Germany had the Baader-Meinhof Gang and their friends, Italy had the Red Brigades and the right-wing counter-terror, and France has had various waves of terrorism going all the way back to the Algerian war. But terrorism is not a very effective technique: none of those groups succeeded.

What the target countries have learned from this long and miserable experience is patience. They have realised that if you just ride it out and don’t panic, the terrorist campaign will eventually peter out as circumstances and intellectual fashions change, or at worst as a new generation rebels against the ideological obsessions of their parents. Meanwhile, do what you sensibly can to stop the attacks, and for the rest, endure. The statistics are on your side: you are dozens of times likelier to die in a car crash than to be killed by terrorists.

European governments don’t ever put it this bluntly to their citizens, but in fact the citizens know it anyway. That is why most ordinary Europeans see al-Qaeda and its Islamist allies as just another wave of terrorist fanatics, less familiar ideologically but no different in essence. Most of their national military, police and civil bureaucracies see things the same way, even in countries like Spain, Italy and Britain where the national leaders have enthusiastically signed up for President Bush’s crusade against evil. So even after their own mini-9/11, if that’s what it was, the Europeans are not going to panic.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 9. (“Right now…through”)