the assumption of responsibility for the welfare of the world











2004 March 16


Jose Maria Aznar, the prime minister of Spain, should be proud: Madrid has been, for the last few days, the center of the world. It is the location of the most important events to have happened in those days. The first of these events was the murder of two hundred commuters; the second was the investigation into those murders; the third was the eviction of Aznar’s government.

Any terrorist activity in Spain is instantly blamed on Euskadi ta Askatasuna, a violent separatist organization attempting to force Madrid to surrender its claim on the Basque Country. This is the same possibly-logical reflex that blamed the Oklahoma City bombing on Arabs, or the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin on Palestinian Arabs. It is reasonable enough, if we are completely ignorant of the specifics. But virtually every fact emerging from the Madrid investigation pointed not to ETA but to al-Qaeda, including the stark fact that al-Qaeda claimed the bombings and ETA denied them. Never mind; Aznar and his anti-minority government pretended in public to be convinced of ETA’s responsibility. Aznar may have defied popular opinion by contributing his state’s military to the invasion of Iraq, but he was never ignorant of popular opinion.

Aznar and his Popular Party (so called) wanted this attack to be the work of ETA, and wanted it not to be the work of al-Qaeda, specifically because they understood public opinion. If ETA, it would validate the conservatives’ efforts to equate Basque separatism, Basque nationalism, and even Basque identity with murder and mayhem. If al-Qaeda, it would suggest a price to be paid at home for Aznar’s unpopular actions in Iraq. It is true that the reverse could be argued in both cases ― that an ETA bombing would demonstrate a price for Aznar’s tough stance against Basque separatism, and that a Qaeda bombing would help equate extremism of the Muslim world with murder and mayhem (as tenuous as is the connection between al-Qaeda’s extremism and Saddam’s, Aznar certainly made that argument). But the Popular Party government knew its electorate well enough to figure who would be blamed in each case. For this reason, the government, in clever stupidity, deliberately withheld evidence of Qaeda involvement and misdirected attention to ETA.

It is an unfortunately-not-unique perversity that terrorism in the case of the Madrid bombings could have perfect success in the service of a despicable cause, and perfect failure in the service of an admirable cause. Had these bombings been the work of ETA, as Spaniards first supposed, Spain would have united even more closely against legitimate Basque self-determination; self-identified Spaniards would have closed ranks around their decadent empire, would have celebrated their oppression of another people with morose glee. On the other hand, had the bombings been the work of al-Qaeda, as unbiased observers first supposed, Spaniards would have instantly capitulated to these extremists’ every demand, which in the Spanish case amounts to an immediate withdrawal from the Middle East, to a cession of this sprawling land of oppression to its various oppressors on the distinctly-dubious claim that any oppression is justified if by coreligionists. Crusaders out; we’ll do the conquering around here, thank you very much.

In superficial ideology, al-Qaeda has little in common with the Baath party. But superficial ideology, the question of “piety” versus “secularism” (each a transparent lie), is much less important than core ideology, where al-Qaeda and Baath are common practitioners of dominion. They seem in agreement that the first step to bringing Iraq back under the control of the dominion is to eject the Western armies who are for whatever reason contesting this control. Should the West withdraw from Iraq, I should be glad to watch the ensuing civil war of dominion between the forces of Osama and those of Saddam, but for the very real consequences to the masses of Iraq, most of whom are largely innocent in this contest, and some of whom are actually directly opposed to both sides. Put another way, the masses of Iraq are mostly of the typical sort, irrational and socialized, but not beyond the persuasive reach of the small number of true rational liberals in Iraq, if only something like political and intellectual freedom can be protected in Iraq for the very long time such persuasion will take.

Spain has been moving in the opposite direction. The Spanish establishment’s war on minority identity has led to the banning of Batasuna, the political party associated with ETA but also the main organ of outright political separatism, the direct analogue of Sinn Fein vis-à-vis the Irish Republican Army. Since I do not support ETA’s methods, I might at least concede some ground if I believed for a moment that Madrid’s contempt for Batasuna was based solely on its affiliation with ETA. My stance on Batasuna is precisely that on Sinn Fein: if a party can win votes in the democratic process, it must be allowed to do so. Some rights in a democracy are inviolable, and among those is the right to be represented by any person or party, without leave of the government or broader society. It ought to be obvious that suppressing peaceful political expression leads to violent political expression. And we cannot properly gauge electoral will if certain parties or even ideologies are excluded. This is what Aznar and mainstream politicians on both sides of Spanish society have attempted to do. They have campaigned not against terrorism, as they would have us believe, but against separatism. Aznar in particular has an imperialist desire to preserve his own personal vision of Spain, of a Spain dominated by Castilian culture and existing within its present interstate boundaries; he has a fascist desire to suppress any sentiment to the contrary.

But since the socialists who have just won power are also largely anti-minority, their victory is hardly a repudiation of imperialism. Spaniards seem to have rejected the conservatives for two connected reasons. First, they had always disapproved of the conservatives’ stance on Iraq, and were especially eager to end Spanish involvement in the occupation when it led to slaughter in Madrid. Second, they were rightly outraged that the government would cover up the truth about the slaughter so as not to lose an election. I was sick of Aznar’s nationalistic posturing in European politics, and I favor leftist social and economic policies, so I am pleased to see the back of the Popular Party. I support Aznar’s courage on the Iraq question (if not his anti-terrorist, rightist-solidary rationale), but strongly oppose his deception regarding the Madrid attack, so I am ambivalent about the Spanish electorate’s reasons for getting rid of his party. But on the most important question in Spanish society, the question of personal and national identity and self-determination, the choice between the conservatives and socialists is between degrees of error.

The two hundred persons who died in this attack were not primarily victims of terrorism. They were victims of the logic of nationalism, and there is every reason to believe that they shared this logic. They did not deserve to die; but few if any of them were innocent. To say they were innocent we would have to presume that they died for involuntary group membership, that they were judged on where they were born, where they lived, which passport they held. We would then have to presume that they denied any nationality, including Spanish nationality, and that they mourned all murdered humans equally, rather than giving preference of feeling to fellow Spaniards. We would have to presume that they were unwilling to force the Basques to live as Spaniards, and unwilling to blame and punish all Basques for the excesses of a few. We would have to presume that they were more troubled by the far greater suffering of Iraqis under Iraqi tyranny than of Iraqis under Western occupation. We would have to presume that they were ready to abolish the borders in their minds, to live as individuals, to let all others live as individuals, and to judge them as individuals. Sadly, this presumption is unwarranted. What happened in Madrid was a dreadful loss, and I do not care if the victims were Yankee, Iraqi, Basque, or Spanish. It is the Spanish who care about that sort of thing.


Original version


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