It’s very rare to see much said in praise of terrorism. “Terrorist” is a title that even those who clearly deserve it decry, preferring to dub themselves “freedom fighters.” Across much of the world, terrorism is considered to be a senseless and inherent evil that must be wiped out. Those who are not openly at war with its practitioners are deemed “rogue states,” inherently dangerous to everything good about the 21st century.
But recent events in Spain throw into sharp relief the reasons why this is an overly simplistic view of the world. On December 30, a bomb set off by militants of the Basque separatist group Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (ETA) killed two Ecuadorian immigrants in Madrid, effectively ending the “permanent ceasefire” that began last March 22. Since then, the Spanish people and government have riled themselves into squeaky outrage, complete with claims that the peace process is “dead” and a public apology by prime minister Jose Zapatero for being overly optimistic about the progress of talks. The condemnations have been fast, furious, and widespread. They have also perfectly illustrated why a group would use these questionable tactics.
The Basques are one of the world’s oldest peoples, with a tradition of cohesiveness and self-government going back thousands of years. Yet for generations they have been oppressed and abused by the French and Spanish, two nations with whom they have absolutely no ethnic connection. Fighting with relatively small numbers against politically influential countries with powerful allies, they have little hope of obtaining their freedom by internationally acceptable means despite widespread support for this goal within the group. The challenges of modern warfare and international politics have frozen the Basques into the status quo.
They are left with four options: tolerate their loss of independence and identity; protest peacefully and hope that France and Spain are hit with a spate of altruism; brave the odds and engage their oppressors on traditional battlefields; or risk pariahdom by bringing their suffering home to those who inflict them. The first option is nothing less than the acquiescence to cultural genocide and the abrogation of the right of self-determination. The second is dangerously naïve. Finally, as the Saharawi of Western Sahara and the Karen people of Burma have amply proven, the third can lead to genocide. Without an effective system of international justice for the stateless, we have left the Basques and those like them with no feasible option besides terrorism. As difficult as it may be to acknowledge, this is an eminently sensible choice for those with no fair arbitrator to turn to.
Moreover, it’s a strategy that actually works. In his 2005 book Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism, University of Chicago political scientist Robert Pape conclusively demonstrated that under the right circumstances, democratic states will change their policies when facing the threat of individualized attacks. For all the aghast horror of the Spanish government, there would not be negotiations for these bombings to disrupt if previous strikes had not forced them to the bargaining table. ETA’s bombing, kidnapping, and assassination campaigns have gotten them what they wanted when it seemed like nothing else would.
It is easy for established states to revile the cowardice and evils of non-traditional methods of warfare and encourage their enemies to “fight like men” or “negotiate like civilized people.” They are fully capable of defending their own interests in these more acceptable venues. But states have the morality they can afford, and states under threat of elimination cannot afford much. Survival is the primary goal of all peoples, and some nations just do not have the means of assuring their survival while committing themselves to the rules of the game. That’s why the Israelis have armed themselves with nuclear weapons, that’s why the landless indigenous peoples of Brazil have gone through spurts of plantation seizure, and that’s why a small minority of Basques have engaged in a four-decade terrorist campaign against the Spanish and French.
There is no doubt that the murder of innocents, which is a fundamental part of terrorism, is an absolute evil, a cancer in the body of humanity that, if left untreated, could kill it. But as we go through the painful process of chemotherapy, it is worth considering what we can do to prevent a recurrence. Certainly it would be unwise to continue smoking and make no effort to remove the asbestos from the ceiling. If the Spanish wish to stop these attacks, they would be well advised to continue moving in the direction of greater autonomy and even outright independence for a people with no wish to be governed by its current rulers and every right under international law to seek self-determination. If we wish to stem the tide of terror on an international scale, we need to move toward stronger institutions for determining fair treatment and offer greater aid to those seeking to determine their own destiny. Until we do so, the stateless and the voiceless will continue to fight with all of the weapons at their disposal, whether it’s moral or not.