Lehenengo Denbora: facing terrorism alone

Arantza de Areilza. Professor. IE School of Arts & Humanities

12 December 2011

Now that ETA has announced a ceasefire, we have to remember that greater sensitivity and action from the international community would have made it a thing of the past far sooner, or lehenendo denbora, as the Basques say.

Europe has reason to celebrate. Spain, the Basque people and democracy have left behind the threat and tragedy that plagued them for 43 years. The most primitive of terrorism campaigns is at the beginning of its end. The terrorist group ETA announced a permanent ceasefire on October 20 using a pen-drive sent to the BBC and Basque newspaper Gara. A scene with an anachronistic touch of deja vu about it then proceeded to unfold, which in spite of the problems and possible setbacks that lie ahead, heralded the drawing to a close of something that is completely at odds with the day-to-day of advanced nations. The fact that the retraction was made on an international level and accompanied by words in the sphere of domestic policy should not obfuscate the great news that a terrorist organization – having succumbed to the pressure of international and national police action, and having been alienated from popular opinion - is going to join the democratic system and adhere to the rule of law.

There are currently multiple points of view in the media about the end of ETA, and even more among the Spanish people. It would be a good idea, however, to think about what how we can prevent it ever happening again. This line of thought hinges on three main axes: multilateral policies, underlying language in international media, and lastly, international solidarity that should be shown to the victims of terrorism and nations affected by outbreaks of terrorism.

Europeans and other free citizens need to go further to take international action to lend multilateral support to countries affected by terrorism. When something like terrorism emerges in a country, particularly if it is a genuinely democratic state that guarantees rights and freedoms, it is crucial not to adopt a weak approach when it comes to offering support to those who suffer as a result of terrorist actions. Aligned international action is essential to ensure right from the outset that the only possible multilateral reaction is that of solid and seamless support for the affected governments.

International organizations, NGOs, economic organisms and military alliances should take action in such a way that the country suffering the terrorist attacks receives help from the very start, enabling it to counteract the attack and thus avoid that the terrorist organization establishes itself in the collective international psyche. Obviously this firm support aimed at stymieing the aims of terrorist organizations in terms of gaining military and economic power as well as a place in the public psyche, must also be accompanied by democratic action to uphold the human rights of the organizations given the job of stamping out terrorism. It is true that when ETA was first created, the fact that it happened during a dictatorship made it difficult to differentiate what their legitimate right was and what constituted a terrorist attack. Nevertheless, the organization could never have reached the heights it did if a robust and concerted international action had been capable of seeing the difference between the do-good policies of some countries in the eighties and the legitimate demands of others. There is no place for possibilism in international cultural heritage when we are talking about terrorist organizations that practice extortion and kill.

As the years have gone by, and with the aid of different Spanish governments, terrorists and their organizations are now seen as such by the governments and agencies of most countries. But leading international media groups still refrain from referring to ETA as “terrorists”, preferring instead to call them a “Basque separatist group”, creating the impression that their demands were justified, which suggests a certain level of acceptance of terrorists and their actions by the international community. We need the media to stop giving oxygen to the ideological health of people who commit acts of terrorism.

Sensitivity to the attacks made by terrorist organizations on the countries where they are active should take the form of an immediate awareness of the pain, suffering and erosion of legitimate freedom that results wherever it happens. The international democratic conscience that is affected by a military coup should be just as moved when a terrorist attack takes place in a fully-fledged democracy.

Finally, victims have to be vindicated, and they need the kind of solidarity that is usually afforded on a diplomatic and international level, as well as sensitive multilateralism. I am not only talking about direct victims, who are, generally speaking, well organized in Spain. I am also talking about oppressed regions, crippled by fear, free citizens who are constricted in terms of freedom of expression; democratic citizens whose freedom of residence is not guaranteed; subjects with rights that are unable to exercise them, whose right to choose the kind of education they want for their children is curtailed.

The moment an act of terrorism is committed in any country, and particularly in a democratic state, the rest should put into motion the mechanisms they have at their disposal to help those affected, promoting a collective awareness and multilateral reaction. There is no place for lukewarm, explanatory reasoning. Terrorism is a cancer that extends far beyond its dead and injured victims, given that it leaves generations struggling to exercise their rights. What we have seen this year in the Basque country is the creation of a subculture of violence and fear, difficult to change, and which has marked the life of several generations of Basques which, at last, now have the possibility of starting to live with peace and liberty within their sights.

We can only hope that the times we are living in will one day be nothing more than a memory, and that we can then talk about terrorism using the words "lehenengo denbora"*.

*Basque for “in those days”.

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