Don't Panic! March 18 2004

Your war questions answered

Why would anyone want to attack Spain?

Obviously, nothing justifies an attack like the one in Madrid on March 11 that killed or injured about 1,600 innocents riding commuter trains. But that doesn't mean politically motivated people with chips on their shoulders (figuratively) and explosives in their backpacks (literally) haven't formulated "justifications" in their murderous little minds.

From an American perspective, it's hard to believe that anyone would have a gripe with Spain. Picasso, Dali, Segovia and that duck-faced woman dating Tom Cruise, they're all Spanish, right? And what about tapas? Everybody loves tapas.

In fact, Spain has a long and illustrious history of enemy-making. In the 15th century, Spain established a murderous campaign of repression against Spanish Jews and Catholics whose faiths were deemed "insincere." Then, during the 16th century, Spain conquered the Aztecs and Incas and even tried unsuccessfully to invade England.

No one suspects that last week's bombings were the result of lingering Elizabethan or Montezuman political sympathies, however. Nope, reports indicate that the bombings were probably the work of everyone's favorite Muslim radicals.

Spain has for centuries been the center of Islam's collision with Europe. Arab Muslim armies reached Spain in the eighth century. By the 11th century, Spain was three-fourths Muslim. The eventual Catholic re-conquest of Spain, culminating in the capture of Granada in 1492, marked the beginning of the Muslim world's decline in power in the country. Allow me to oversimplify — for Osama bin Laden types, Spain is a sore spot.

Add to that Spain's (under the just-voted-out-government of Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar) firm support of Bush's War on Terror (tm) and you've got a motive.

On the day of the attack, a group called Abu Hafs al-Masri Brigades even claimed that al-Qaeda was behind the attack. Their word isn't definitive, though. The same group also claims responsibility for last August's big blackout in the United States and Canada. The bombings actually might have been carried out by Euskadi Ta Azkatasuna. Call them Eta for short.

Eta is a terrorist group. It denies responsibility for the March 11 bombings, but they've bombed Madrid's train stations before. Spanish officials even say that a week or so before the bombings, they caught Eta trying to smuggle 500 kilograms of explosives into Madrid.

Eta's full name means Basque Homeland and Freedom. Its goal is to establish an independent state comprised of ethnic Basques on the Iberian Peninsula's northern coast. One big problem, though. Most of that patch of land is already an independent state. It's called Spain. The rest is part of an independent state called France. Neither Spain nor France is particularly eager to give up the land.

A Basque's primary distinguishing feature is his or her language. Basques speak Euskara. It's supposedly the oldest language in Western Europe. I've also read that Basques have the highest percentage of people with type-O blood — 55 percent — in Europe. If those two things don't earn you your own country, then gosh, I don't know what does anymore.

Eta was founded in 1959, when Spain was still under the rule of fascist dictator Francisco Franco. Franco banned Euskara and arrested, tortured and murdered prominent Basques. Eta responded with violence. In 1968, they assassinated a police chief, and in 1973 they killed Franco's Prime Minister and likely successor Admiral Blanco.

After Franco died in 1975, Spain began to transform into the liberal democracy we know, love and, if we're lucky, visit. The 1978 constitution granted broad autonomy to the Basques, but for greedy old Eta, it wasn't enough. Eta wanted full independence, so it pressed on with its terror campaign. In 1979, Eta bombed two railway stations and the Madrid airport simultaneously, killing six and injuring 130.

Since 1980, Eta violence has declined sharply, thanks to both a Spanish government crackdown and diminished support of the Eta movement by Basques who are perfectly happy to be part of Spain. The decline has been so steep that many in Spain assume Eta is a spent force.


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