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There is No Such Thing as a War on Terrorism
Published on Friday, September 10, 2004 by the International Herald Tribune
There is No Such Thing as a War on Terrorism
by Javier Marías

Our perception of time is all too variable, and there are many factors that can strangely and dramatically affect it, breaking the thread of continuity.

When a love affair ends, for example, everything that belonged to the time of that love suddenly becomes the "past," and things that happened only a year ago when you were with the person who left you, or whom you left, now seem distant and incongruously remote. The same happens after the death of someone we love, especially after the mourning is over. Then, even things that didn't directly concern that person seems part of some bygone era.

These temporal abysses also open up in the aftermath of great catastrophes. All that happened before Sept. 11, 2001, has become remote. It's been three years, according to the calendar, but psychologically it feels like no fewer than 10 - and that's true for the entire world.

Don't we all feel that the war in Afghanistan, which came only a little later, began decades ago? That might be because the Afghan war was the only truly direct consequence of the attacks on the twin towers and the Pentagon and was therefore in some way "contemporary" with those killings, unlike the outlandish, unjustified and illegal war in Iraq and its interminable and incomprehensible aftermath.

Ordinary citizens, even those who were once most fully convinced of the justice and necessity of the invasion of Iraq, know instinctively and naturally that the Iraq war and the terrorist attacks are two separate events. Political leaders too often forget about this "perceptive factor" among the citizenry, which is not necessarily based on reason. They forget, too, that very little can be done against it.

After the March 11 train bombings in Spain, Spaniards immediately perceived two things: First, that Prime Minister José María Aznar's administration was indirectly responsible for the horror, which would not have occurred if Aznar had not been so eager to promote his alliance with Tony Blair and George W. Bush. Second, that his administration lied about the probable authorship of the attacks - or delayed the truth, which under the circumstances amounted to the same thing - for political advantage.

Whether accurate or erroneous, true or false, there's no way to uproot such perceptions. And while they are of little use in the eyes of the law, they are useful when it comes to deciding whom to vote for in an election. That, and nothing else, was what happened in Spain.

Aznar's administration had been in power for eight years when it was voted out three days after the attacks. All those malicious commentators on our election results deliberately forgot two things: that in times of crisis, people tend to support the existing government, and that Spain has endured Basque terrorism for 30 years without faltering. Perhaps it's simply that our hides have toughened; our hearts and minds have grown more accustomed to futile, gratuitous murder.

It is a terrible thing, but little by little you get used to the possibility of indiscriminate attack just as we've all grown used to the certainty that there will be deaths on the highways every weekend. "It's always going to happen - let's hope it doesn't happen to us," becomes the unformed, unconscious thought.

Maybe that's why Spain, six months later, seems already to have overcome the trauma of the railway bombings. There is no more fear than there was before, nor fewer liberties. Today's Spanish government shows no interest in constantly sounding alarms. Our habits seem as unchanging as the streets, the bars, the restaurants, the airports and the train stations, all just as crowded as ever and as lively and buoyant.

It's also certainly true that for most of us, not a day goes by without remembering the almost 200 victims of March 11, with pain and a keen awareness that chance, fate and bad luck continue to be as important today as they were in humanity's less foreseeing epochs.

Here in Spain, we don't feel as if we are at war because we aren't. And neither are the inhabitants of the United States, however vociferously many Americans may insist that they are.

War is something else entirely. No semi-normal life can be led while a war is going on. The residents of Madrid who lived through the siege of their city between 1936 and 1939 know that very well. The survivors of the daily bombardments of London during World War II know it, too. And those Americans who participated in that war know it, also.

There is no war against terrorism. There can be no such thing against an enemy that remains dormant most of the time and is almost never visible. It's simply another of life's inevitable troubles, and all we can do as we continue to combat it is repeat Cervantes's famous phrase "Paciencia y barajar": "Have patience, and keep shuffling the cards."

Javier Marías is the author of "Dark Back of Time." This was translated from the Spanish by Esther Allen.

Copyright © 2004 the International Herald Tribune


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