John Carlin: How terrorism became politically incorrect

Terrorism in western Europe, by western Europeans, is a 20th-century thing

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Al-Qa'ida, in co-operation with the Spanish and French police, have dealt what looks like a mortal blow to Eta, Europe's last terrorist organisation. The political wing of the Basque separatist movement, Batasuna, has proposed a peace plan for its small corner of northern Spain, a change of tune that has come about now because of the psychological effect of the Madrid train bombings and the success of cross-border police operations in decapitating the Eta leadership.

Al-Qa'ida, in co-operation with the Spanish and French police, have dealt what looks like a mortal blow to Eta, Europe's last terrorist organisation. The political wing of the Basque separatist movement, Batasuna, has proposed a peace plan for its small corner of northern Spain, a change of tune that has come about now because of the psychological effect of the Madrid train bombings and the success of cross-border police operations in decapitating the Eta leadership.

The Spanish political establishment has reacted with caution to the olive branch extended by Batasuna's leader, Arnaldo Otegi. They suspect a stalling tactic to allow them time to regroup. But an individual who has been in close contact recently with Batasuna officials told me that he believed that this time they were for real; that when Otegi spoke of his people's "firm commitment" to negotiate with their "enemies", to seek an end to what Eta calls "the armed struggle", he meant it.

He probably did. Terrorism in western Europe, by western Europeans, is a 20th-century thing. Unless you happen to belong to the lunatic Islamist fringe, killing unarmed civilians for political ends is not considered politically correct in anybody's book, anywhere on the continent, any more.

The 11 September 2001 attacks had a sobering effect on the IRA, accelerating the tendency among their leadership to pursue their ends by peaceful means. The al-Qa'ida bombs that killed 189 people on commuter trains bound for Madrid on 11 March, had a similar impact on the Basque separatists.

It is a risk to try to enter the mind of a person who is prepared to kill innocents in pursuit of a political end, in particular an end as banal as the one Eta has been pursuing. (It is one thing resorting to terrorism when Franco is in power; another when you have your own massively autonomous government, your own language taught in schools, and prosperity unlike anything your people have ever known.) But let us try. Let us try to penetrate the mental processes of an Eta terrorist living clandestinely in a nice country house in south-west France or - not so clandestinely - in a Basque mountain village, idolised by the local youth.

On 11 March you hear the news of the slaughter on the Madrid trains and you hear also that practically all of Spain, not excluding a fair number of your Basque compatriots, believe your people did it. You'd feel, probably, a certain horror at what happened, in common with most other members of the species to which - notwithstanding your calling - you belong. You'd also feel indignation at being associated with such a thing. In fact, Otegi said as much, declaring that what happened in Madrid was categorically not the sort of thing Eta would do.

At which point, and having subjected yourself via the news media to the hideous images and harrowing personal tales that the massacre of the Madrid innocents occasioned, your Eta cadre - as well as Otegi and many of the thousands of others who thought that terrorism was cool - may have paused for some quiet reflection. Sobered, like some of those IRA men emerging after 11 September (and indeed the Real IRA's bombing of Omagh) after their decades-long killing spree, they may even have pondered the thought that murdering children whom you do not know, and have never done you any harm, is the summit of criminal imbecility.

The enormity of what happened on 11 March and 11 September might also have provoked a bout of what the intellectual left (to which the Eta-Batasuna crowd like to think they belong) call "self-criticism". Which means submitting your actions to dialectical analysis. In such a case you would have to ponder this proposition: if killing 190 people is bad terrorism, is killing 10 good terrorism? If the answer is no, our terrorist has a problem. Logic dictates that he abandons terrorism altogether.

Now, it could be that such thoughts have not entered the heads of any Eta member or Batasuna official, such thoughts had to have penetrated the minds of a good sector of Basque society in general, and Basque supporters of separatism in particular. And since Batasuna's primary purpose in life is, like everybody else's, survival, and since in order to survive they need to have some measure of public support, they and their terrorist wing have been obliged to submit their methods to a dramatic reappraisal.

The other factor in all this is the collaboration between Spanish and French police. This year they have arrested more than 100 Eta suspects, including the organisation's leader, Mikel Antza, in September. Eta's logistical and financial apparatus has been practically dismantled. Today, what's left of them spend much more of their time taking measures to avoid arrest than preparing new missions.

Most of these spectacular police successes have occurred since 11 March. No doubt much has to do with the efficiency and sophistication of the operations the Spanish and French have run. But, while the relatives of the Madrid dead won't appreciate it, thanks are due also to al-Qa'ida. Maybe one day they too will be jolted out of barbarism back into the human fold.

The writer is a journalist and author based in Spain

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