Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Kale Borroka

Mario Onaindia. Guia para Orientarse en el Laberinto Vasco.  Madrid: Temas de Hoy, 2000.  ISBN: 8478808396.

This essay starts a series of reflections on terrorism and the concept of holy war.

Ten years ago, I was preparing to serve as an LDS missionary in northern Spain.  Right before I left for Utah en route to the LDS Missionary Training Center in Provo, the Twin Towers were attacked.  Living at home away from the television, it was some time before I learned of the attack, and my first reaction was not very emotional.  I remember a vague fear that the attack would impede my upcoming international adventure, but when it did not I promptly ceased to care too much about the political kerfuffle that followed (as the United States declared her War on Terror): the issues of right and wrong, forgiveness and retribution, fear and loathing that the attacks raised were relegated to stew somewhere unnoticed in the back of my mind.

Less than a month later, I found myself living with three other LDS missionaries in Bilbao on the northern Spanish coast.  I had not been there more than a few weeks or so when another terrorist attack disrupted my life.  This time, I could not just brush it off.   It had been a long day, but I was feeling happy.  We had already returned to our comfortable little apartment in the Begona district, and I was standing alone in the main room, looking out at the city, which was lit up for the night.  Everything was quiet and still: our window was open, I think, and the air was crisp and clear.  Then, suddenly, there was a massive sonic boom, and the floor underneath me shook.  I thought someone was dynamiting our building!  Fortunately, I was mistaken.  The next day, there was a blast crater in the park (Etxebarria Parkea) across the street (including a few shredded trees), and people were talking about how the target had been some local police (the Ertzaintza).  Another attack took place several months later.  A fellow missionary and I were visiting one of our local LDS sisters (with her family), and she happened to have the television on.  No sooner did we reassure her that it would not destroy our ability to focus than the scene cut suddenly to downtown Bilbao, and we were upstaged: La Gran Via Don Diego Lopez de Haro was practically empty (unheard of for the hour), and all windows near the train station (and the nearby post of the Guardia Civil) were smashed.  Throughout my stay in Bilbao (about six months), these events never left me: when I went to the municipal police station to hand in paperwork for my empadronamiento, the wall held a giant plaque commemorating officers killed in combat, and one of our regular walking routes took us right past an official station downtown (either police or Guardia Civil) where men with machine guns guarded the roof as well as every entrance.  It was strange to see them standing there, watchful and alert, scanning the crowds of shoppers, business travelers, and schoolchildren, who parted naturally to step around their large guns, but never interrupted the flow of countless conversations.  It was like they were not there.  Until the terrorists blew them up, again.

Who were these terrorists?  I learned quickly that they were Basque nationalists, members of a group known commonly as ETA, an acronym for Euskadi ta Askatasuna ("Basque Homeland and Freedom").  I knew they fought for freedom from Spanish and French rule (this much the graffiti told), that they targeted military and police preferentially (this much the gossip told), and that their role in Basque society was hotly contested (this much the continual demonstrations in the street told: some hotly demanded the release of political prisoners; others decried the use of violence by Basques).  That was all I got.  As a young foreigner still very adolescent and very much involved in my own mission (which had everything to do with sharing Mormonism and as little as possible to do with Basque terrorism), I was not exceptionally receptive to the deeper currents moving the masses of people then around me.  I thought that Basque people were quirky (with traditional language, dress, and other forms of culture that came out especially on holidays), stubborn (because few of them wanted to talk religion with an American teenager determined to convert them), and good (since they seemed to value things like family, integrity, and honor).  I did not really see where terrorism fit in this collage.  But, years later, Mario Onaindia showed me.

Onaindia's book is a fascinating history of the nationalist movement(s) in Euskadi (Basque Country). It starts with two seminal events: (1) the abolition of the fueros vascos (roughly the Basque equivalent of the English Magna Carta) by the democratic reforms of Antonio Canovas del Castillo (1876); and (2) the creation of the Euzko Alderdi Jeltzalea (i.e. "Basque Party of the Supporters of God and Old Laws," or, more prosaically, the Partido Nacionalista Vasco) by Sabino Arana (1894).  The aftermath of these events occupies an entertaining cast of historical characters all the way through the twentieth century (right up to the day I felt the floor shake under my feet!).  The story is long and very dense, and I am still struggling to understand it all, but I have enough to notice some interesting things.  Basically, canceling the fueros created a more or less permanent fracture in Basque society.  Some Basques gave the old laws up for lost and started working to secure their place in society by other means.  These people accepted more or less peaceful interaction with successive Spanish governments that came and went over the last century, using legal means to establish boundaries between Basque society and the larger Spanish commonwealth.  Nationalists in this category include the current Partido Nacionalista Vasco (PNV), which operates today like any other political party in a modern representative democracy, attracting voters who elect officers who enact policies (which might include measures designed to secure greater autonomia for Basques in Euskadi).  However, a significant minority of Basques felt that no government (neither the Spanish republic, nor Franco's dictatorship, nor the restoration government that followed under Juan Carlos I) had any right to treat with them at all without the fueros.  The intransigence of these hardliners was radicalized early on as a result of the brutal industrialization of Vizcaya (starting in the nineteenth century under the republic), which destroyed not only the local landscape, but also much of the peasant culture so dear to some Basques.  As a result of this action (and others like it), the tough minority lost all respect for any government, which they saw as intractably foreign and oppressive (Onaindia nicknames this caricature of the Spanish government Neguri, after the wealthy neighborhood in Bilbao where the original industrialists who destroyed the old Vizcaya built mansions with their ill-gotten gain).  Thoroughly disillusioned with Spain, the radicals became warriors, kidnapping and killing targeted enemies (government officials, police, Basques who were too cooperative with the Spanish government, and even wholly innocent and helpless bystanders like Miguel Angel Blanco) and engaging in regular bouts of public mayhem (the kale borroka).  ETA is the most active, high-profile group formed in modern times by these insurgents.

The result is a bizarre situation, in which passionate Basques on both sides say words that sound the same (at least to outsiders like me) even as their actions are noticeably different.  One man is proud of his Basque heritage and declares that pride by voting for a local politician.  Another is similarly proud and declares it by blowing up a car near the police station.  Each thinks the other is nuts.  Each thinks his expression of cultural pride is the only "true" one (the only one worthy of a real Basque).  At certain moments in historical time, each has declared the other to be a traitor.  And yet they say they want the same thing: freedom, dignity, and self-determination for Basque people.  One seeks that prize through negotiation, admitting the fact that different Basque people want different things (i.e. that there is no single definition for "freedom, dignity, and self-determination" that all Basques would recognize: some of them want Euskadi to maintain affiliation with the Spanish government, and see that government as standing for something more than ruthless exploitation).  The other opts for violence, even violence directed at his own people, because he thinks that his vision of "freedom, dignity, and self-determination" must prevail at all costs.  (He does not see any good in the government, which is forever tainted by certain moments of its past.)  If other Basques cannot see it, he must show them.  If they cannot accept it, he must punish them (just as he punishes the servants of the Spanish government, e.g. politicians, policemen, and officers of the Guardia Civil).  Neguri must not win: if she is brutal (killing and enslaving innocents), then he must oppose her with the same brutality.  War hurts everyone, but you cannot make an omelet without breaking a few eggs, right?

The warrior sees the negotiator as a compromised coward, a weakling who abandons real freedom for a specious pretense (the diluted autonomia within the larger commonwealth that the Spanish government allows).  The negotiator sees the warrior as an uncompromising fool, a danger to himself and to everyone else who comes near him (like Blanco, mentioned above, whose "crime" was being in the wrong place at the wrong time: he did nothing to oppress Basques, and his death brought no obvious victory for the separatist movement).  But when Onaindia stripped off the warrior's mask and showed him to me in his native habitat, with the ghosts of Neguri looming down over him, threatening his traditional way of life with a faceless and horrible modernity (the end of Spanish hegemony abroad, industrialization of the Basque countryside, and the post-modern desert of globalization in which the wealthy take all and the poor turn to bankrupt governments for economic help rather than retaining the means and skills to serve themselves), I saw that he is not necessarily an inhuman monster.  Instead, he looked a lot more like a rather ordinary human being responding to a not entirely irrational fear that his whole way of life is disappearing.  When democrats offer him a seat at the common table of the new Spanish order, he fears a trap (a repeat of the rape of Vizcaya).  He does not want to move forward to a new society.  He wants to go back to the good old days (which have only gotten better since we left them).  He does not see where the emerging order created by the Spanish government and the negotiators has any room for him, really.  They speak to his head (arguing that the Basque people have freedom, dignity, and self-determination now), but they have not managed to persuade his heart (which cannot help feeling that today's freedom is not what the old freedom was, before the abolition of the fueros and the coming of Neguri).  

And so Euskadi remains riven, people go on dying, and visitors like me have to tread carefully.

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