TCS Daily

Bombs, Basques... and Boise

By Patrick Cox - December 7, 2004 12:00 AM

November 29th, a commission of Spain's legislature, dominated by Socialists and their center-left allies, accused former prime minister Jose Maria Aznar of lying when he blamed, initially, the ETA for the March 11 attacks on the Madrid railway system. Four days later, the Basque separatist group hit the city with a new round of bombings. And again, days later, ETA bombs were detonated in Malaga, Leon, Santillana del Mar, Avila, Alicante and in Ciudad Real,

Though no one was killed, ETA's most recent terrorist acts went so far toward vindicating Aznar's premature but justifiable suspicions, Walter Cronkite might have blamed Karl Rove. It also put pressure on supporters of the Basque separatist movement to condemn terrorism, and cast a spotlight on a kind of tribal psychology that leads some to tolerate acts that they would denounce utterly if committed by people outside their gene pool.

In Spain, this was demonstrated by the unwillingness of Batasuna, the party most associated with ETA and the separatist movement, to renounce the bombings. Ongoing attempts to bring the banned party, that won 18 percent of the vote in regional elections in 1998, back into the political fold are therefore considered dead.

Ironically, this sort of reluctance to pass judgment on terrorists of similar stock is found in often unexpected places. I say this, having spent many of my formative years amongst the largest concentration of Basques outside their homeland of Euskadi -- Boise, Idaho and its rural environs.

One such example of this diffidence took place in 2002 when Idaho's Secretary of State, Basque Republican Pete Cenarrusa co-authored and lobbied for a state resolution, with strong backing from Idaho's Basque population, asking the governments of Spain and France to recognize the Basque people's right to "self-determination." Not found in the resolution, however, was any renunciation of ETA violence, a lack that was interpreted by many as a slap in the face of the Spanish administration and, in particular, Prime Minister Aznar.

At the time, Aznar was not only risking his political career by backing the U.S.-led effort to remove Saddam Hussein from power, he had barely survived, in 1995, an ETA car bomb. In 1999, his government foiled an attempt by the ETA to bring down the Picasso Tower, a Madrid high-rise designed by the same architect responsible for the World Trade Towers. Since 1968, in fact, the group has killed approximately 850 people, a greater percentage of Spain's population of 40 million than America has lost to al Qaida.

ETA stands for Euskadi ta Askatasuna, or "Basque Fatherland and Liberty." Founded on revolutionary Marxist principles, ETA demands a homeland that would include several Spanish provinces and part of France. This is despite the fact that the Spanish Basque regions may be the most autonomous in both Spain and the EC.

The 1978 Spanish Constitution enabled the establishment of the "The Statute of Autonomy" or the "Statute of Guernica," that imparts unparalleled self-rule to the Basque Community -- comprising the provinces of Alava, Gipuzkoa and Bizkaia. Political power flows from the Basque Parliament, the Basque Government and the Basque President, or Lehendakari. Basque institutions control the region's budget, taxation, police, and public works institutions. Basque is the official language of the region, along with Spanish.

These changes have eroded the widespread support the ETA enjoyed during Franco's reign. Among Basque voters in Spain, approximately two-thirds oppose separation from Spain and many have joined in the spontaneous demonstrations and subsequent social movement known as "Basta ya" -- literally "Enough Already." This is why the Idaho legislature's original statement, supportive of an unpopular minority separatist movement, was widely and naturally interpreted as sympathetic to the ETA.

A joint effort by National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and Spanish Ambassador to the United States, Javier Ruperez, resulted in modifications of the measure's language, including a condemnation of ETA, before it was approved unanimously by the Idaho House. The irony, however, is stark.

Idaho is one of the two or three most conservative states in the union, with strong support for the war on terror and President Bush, who won 68 percent of the vote in the last election. One might assume, based on support for the separatist bill by Idaho's Basque population, estimated at 20,000, that they are outside the political mainstream. This is not, however, the case.

I grew up with kids of Basque heritage, learned a few phrases of both religious and profane utility, ate rabbit at their restaurants and even ran into shepherds with their flocks while hiking in the mountains. Almost all are completely American and assimilated. This is why it is so interesting that they would fall prey to identity politics, and the more so because the majority of Basques in Spain are fed up with the ETA's separatist obsession and violence.

This sort of unthinking, uninformed expatriot radicalism is not, however, unique to the Basques. I've seen the same tendencies on the Irish side of my own family.

Anybody, in fact, who has ever hung out long in an Irish pub in Chicago or New York has heard somebody. after a beer or five, talking about the British in terms that seem lifted from Braveheart. More Irish than the Irish, somebody might even take up a collection for the IRA -- an act either of murderous collaboration or stunning naivete.

The group most effected today by the psychology of ethnicity, however, is America's Arab/Muslim community. Even before 9/11, there was a willingness among many in this group to accept, uncritically, Palestinian rhetoric and violence. If anything, this characteristic intensified after the invasion of Iraq and is highlighted by the incongruity of rather secular Muslim Americans, who came to this country in search of freedom, now opposing the liberation of Iraqis who suffered under conditions of horrendous tyranny.

While this psychology of ethnicity is, perhaps, an understandable and universal human tendency, the only rational response, for people of all origins, is to say "basta ya."


TCS Daily Archives