Published on
the Bangor Daily News (Maine)

Does Spain's Decision Show Restraint or Appeasement?

The bomb blasts last month in Spain did more than defeat the ruling party. They revealed gaping wounds in international and domestic politics. Within hours of the train blasts, terrorism experts could plausibly identify several possible agents of the atrocity. And just as pundits issued their lists of possible perpetrators, some governments were already manipulating these horrific events to suit their nationalistic agendas.

Leading conservatives in the United States, such as David Brooks of The New York Times, were apoplectic in response to Spain's electoral upheaval. For Brooks and the Bush administration, once terrorists' bombs have detonated, the only choice for courageous and principled people is to back the most harshly anti-terrorist party. The enemy of my enemy is my friend.

Electing a new prime minister who was critical of the war on Iraq is simple appeasement. Brooks is confident that if al-Qaida strikes the United States in the months leading up to our presidential election, voters will if anything only strengthen their commitment to the war. He may be right, but such a knee-jerk reaction would hardly represent principled courage.

U.S. media have reached sweeping conclusions about the meaning and consequences of the Spanish vote. Though Spanish voters have been consistently opposed to the war in Iraq, it is not clear that their actions were motivated primarily by this concern. Many Spanish citizens appear to have been more upset by Prime Minister Aznar's apparent willingness to manipulate information to suit his own political ends. Well before local police had completed even preliminary investigations, the government announced that the bombs were the work of ETA, the violent Basque separatist organization.

Not to be outdone, a United States administration that usually targets militant Islam as the source of world violence immediately jumped in to support its ally's contention. When police authorities in Spain released findings suggesting that the bombs may have been the work of al-Qaida, the ruling party may have suffered a major loss of credibility.

Many Europeans are also unconvinced that terrorism leaves us with only two alternatives, appeasement or military preemption. They are skeptical that Iraq ever aided al-Qaida. They also remind us, as British journalist Anthony Sampson suggested: "The first objective of terrorists throughout the years is to provoke the enemy to behave badly and so widen the conflict. ... In the late nineteenth century, anarchists and revolutionaries were causing panic throughout Europe, assassinating French and Spanish Prime Ministers and an Italian king. British governments maintained their phlegmatic calm and resisted provocation."


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Sampson goes on to point out that: prudent democratic societies "should not allow terrorists to provoke them into the kind of counterterrorism which would stimulate still more terrorists. ... Bin Laden's long-term masterplan was quite clear. He wanted, like previous arch-terrorists, to force his opponents to respond ruthlessly and, to achieve maximum publicity, to produce further recruits." If Brooks can play the game of reading bin Laden's mind, others may as well. Sampson suspects bin Laden would be quite happy to see Bush remain in power.

If our real goal is to reduce the incidence of violence against innocent civilians, we would do well to look beyond our propensity to treat all political opponents and nation states that oppose our agendas as actual or potential terrorists. In this respect, defense of civil liberties at home is not only right in itself but is an important anti-terror terror strategy. Resolutions by the state legislature and local governments in opposition to the Patriot Act are one step we in Maine can take to protect our democracy and reduce support for political violence.

Conservatives regularly argue that nothing our government does will persuade bin Laden to back off his campaign of terror against the United States. They are perhaps right in that view. Overt attacks should be resisted or punished. Nonetheless, an equally important question is the reaction of many moderate Muslims and indeed of other disaffected ethnic and national minorities.

The Basque separatists themselves had their start in the late '50s when the Franco government outlawed their language and their political participation. Many minorities resent to some degree their current governments but are hardly terrorists. Yet an agenda which includes perpetual surveillance of communications and reading habits, military tribunals, and racial profiling will surely discourage many members of minority communities from cooperating with efforts to forestall terrorist violence.

Sampson reminds us of Joseph Conrad's "The Secret Agent," wherein "a sinister East European diplomat tries to provoke British reprisals by employing a spy ... to blow up the Greenwich Observatory [based on a real incident in 1894]. When the British fail to be provoked, the diplomat angrily complains: 'The general leniency of the judicial procedure here, and the utter absence of all repressive measures, are a scandal to Europe.'"

Unfortunately, there is little likelihood that the Bush administration will ever be accused of this sort of scandal.

John Buell

John Buell

John Buell has a PhD in political science, taught for 10 years at College of the Atlantic, and was an Associate Editor of The Progressivefor ten years. He lives in Southwest Harbor, Maine and writes on labor and environmental issues. His most recent book, published by Palgrave in August 2011, is "Politics, Religion, and Culture in an Anxious Age." He may be reached at

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