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Spain Crucifies Basques Under a 'Terrorist' Placard

Madrid seems to think this odious label justifies persecution of a people.

March 14, 2003|Mark Kurlansky | Mark Kurlansky is the author of "The Basque History of the World" (Penguin, 2001).

Time passes; labels change. That great scourge of the 20th century, anti-communism, is now called anti-terrorism. It remains a label designed to generate fear and to make any abuse permissible.

On Feb. 20, the Spanish government closed the newspaper Euskaldunon Egunkaria, the only one published in Euskera, the ancient Basque language. The police arrested 10 people -- most of the staff of the tiny operation, including the editor. Accusing them of aiding the violent Basque nationalist group ETA, police sent the 10 to Madrid, held them for days and tortured them, they say, before some were released on high bail. When they publicly described their mistreatment, they were informed that they might be rearrested for lying.

Just how the newspaper, whose books are scrutinized by the Basque government, is allegedly working with ETA is unclear. But the events are all standard procedure, made possible by anti-terrorist laws passed in Spain in the 1980s. Political parties are banished, newspapers are shut down and thousands are arrested, held without judicial scrutiny, beaten and tortured. Hundreds have been killed.

Yet, while human rights groups write their reports, nobody is particularly upset, for the victims are Basques. And the Basques, we are told -- like the Arabs -- are terrorists, and they deserve whatever they get, no matter how law-abiding they are.

The average Spanish family living in a different corner of Iberia will not see a problem with any of this until the political party they vote for is outlawed, their newspaper of choice is shut down, their son vanishes one day and turns up weeks later with bruises and scars. The Spanish government can do this, too, with the same anti-terrorism laws it uses against the Basques.

The Franco dictatorship drew close to the U.S. with the unspoken argument that a commitment to anti-communism was more important than human rights. Today, the government of Jose Maria Aznar draws close to the Bush administration by virtue of a commitment to anti-terrorism.

The great lie on which all this is based is that the Basques are terrorists.

Once a people is labeled "terrorist," anything is permissible, and so the Spanish government insists on this label.

The Basques are a notoriously divided people. Their tiny land, about the size of New Hampshire, is divided into seven provinces -- three in France and four in Spain -- each speaking a different dialect of an orphan language that probably predates all other European languages.

Disputes endure between the provinces of Vizcaya and Guipuzcoa, and between Navarra and everyone else, and that's just on the Spanish side.

Yet Basques are frequently described by the Spanish as single-minded, bomb-wielding separatists.

Some Basques want a separate country made up of the seven provinces, but that desire is held by a small minority. Such an independent Basque nation has never existed in the thousands of years of their history.

What Basques always had was a special relationship with the ruling power: the Romans, the French, the Spanish. Although loyal to the ruling state, they were outside the customs zone and had their own laws.

Judging from voting patterns, a clear majority of Basques, 60% or more, want that special relationship to return.

An even higher percentage of Basques, all but a very few, adamantly opposes the use of violence to achieve goals and believes the murderous ways of ETA to be unacceptable.

ETA, which has killed many Basques, injures the Basque economy, destroys the Basque name and is hated by most Basques.

The estimated 800 killings attributed to ETA since 1968 and a similar number of Spanish killings of Basques in the same period are equally unpardonable.

It is wrong to kill in the name of Basque nationalism.

It is also wrong when the Spanish police and Civil Guard kill Basques and then find weapons that no bystanders saw.

It is wrong when Basques "commit suicide" in Spanish prisons with their hands bound, or when Basques meet with mysterious fatal accidents in Spanish custody.

We all know that killing is wrong, so we find ways to identify some killing as better than others. The U.S. does not bomb civilians, but it kills hundreds in "collateral damage." ETA kills people, while the Spanish government simply fights terrorism. Spanish killing is excusable because it consists of "accidents" in the noble pursuit of anti-terrorism -- collateral damage -- whereas ETA killings are despicable because they are terrorism.

In fact, ETA rarely employs terrorism, defined as random killing to create fear. In most cases, it goes after specific people for specified reasons. I am not saying that this excuses ETA (after all, anything the Spanish government chooses to call an "apology for terrorism" is a crime in Spain); I am simply pointing out that the Spanish deliberately misuse the terrorism label to excuse their own crimes.

The Basques denounce political violence and mount demonstrations of tens of thousands of people against ETA. The Basque government and the Basque police force ruthlessly pursue the rogue organization. There is no more they can do.

It is now up to the Spanish people to denounce and seek legal redress for the brutal crimes committed against the Basque people by their government under the guise of anti-terrorism, because if Spain, as the Spanish claim, is a functioning democracy, these crimes are being committed in their name.

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