Terrorism and politics: The instrumentalization of violence

imageArnaldo Otegi” by Sinn Féin 
angela-100x100by Angela Muñoz Aroca

The concept of terrorism has evolved throughout the years, getting a whole new amplitude for the Western countries since the terrorist attacks that took place in the United States the 9/11, becoming a transnational disease to be defeated by all countries together. Nevertheless, the traditional meaning of this concept has not disappeared from the historical memory and the lives of many people, being two of its most prominent examples in Europe the terrorist or secessionist groups of ETA in Spain and the IRA in Ireland.

The difference between both interpretations–terrorist or secessionist- are paramount as they concede a different legitimacy to the violent acts committed by the members of these groups. By defining it as terrorism, I refer to `the unlawful use of violence and intimidation, especially against civilians, in the pursuit of political aims´,[1] as defined by the Oxford Dictionary, or the actions or methods `of coercion of a population or its leadership or both, through fear or traumatization´,[2] as defined by the author Gerald Holton. Thus, trying to avoid the risk of obscuring what are the consequences of these acts and how they affect the lives of many people, this is the meaning I will refer to while talking about the actions of these groups. In the case of Spain, the terrorist group Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (ETA) inflicted pain in individuals and forced by coercion, kidnapping and assassination, decisions at the governmental level, using the population as a managerial tool to achieve their political goals.

Despite the group announced the ceasefire in 2011, the topic has achieved renewed relevance in the Spanish political media due to the release from prison of one of its former political leaders, Arnaldo Otegi, last march and his return to the Basque Country political life. Accordingly, he became the protagonist of many front pages this month due to his visit to the Catalonia’s parliament, invited by the President of this institution, Carme Forcadell, in the midst of expressions of disagreement made by several sectors of the society and political groups, which interpreted his visit as intolerable and a provocation. On the other hand, Otegi has also received support from those who interpret his imprisonment as a political –rather than legal- trial, turning him a liberator and a living example of the apparent lack of transparency and independency of the judicial power in Spain.

Before continuing, and for those who have never heard about Arnaldo Otegi, let me summarize the background of this politician. Otegi became part of the terrorist group ETA in the 70s, being part of the so called at that time ETA military-political group. The group was blamed for bombing public spaces, for robbery, kidnappings and assassinations. Accordingly, Otegi has been linked to some cases of kidnaping of relevant Spanish business and political personalities. After the division of the first group, Otegi continued being active in politics, becoming  the spokesperson of Batasuna and a parliamentary for organizations such as Euskal Herritarrok, all of them illegalized by the government in 2003 as they were all considered linked to the terrorist group ETA. Thus, for many years, his name has been present in all debates about ETA as he was considered the political leader of the group. Nevertheless, Otegi is also known for fueling the peace process between the armed group and the government, what was materialized in what was known as the Star Agreement (Pacto de Estella). The negotiations for the disarmament and dissolution of the terrorist group were active for several years, being in danger many times due to the violence still exercised by the group. It is believed that the final break up between Otegi and ETA took place after the terrorist attack to the T4 of the Airport Madrid Barajas. Thus, after being charged of being a member of a terrorist group and, after that, of glorifying terrorism, Otegi has been imprisoned several times, being finally released last March after complying with his last six and a half years of prison. Nevertheless, while being in jail he was chosen as the leader of the pro-independence and nationalist party Sortu, position that he has taken immediately after leaving prison and the reason why he was invited to the parliament.

The political past of Otegi and his ambiguous position towards the violence exercised by the group helps to understand the anger that his visit has fuelled within the Spanish population, being the most vindicatory of them the organization of victims of terrorism, which took the initiative of sending a letter to the president of the Parliament with 15,000 signs asking to stop the reception, appellation that received no answer. The argument they gave is clear: How can a legitimate institution such as the Catalonia’s Parliament receive a person that has being condemned for terrorism and that has not clearly opposed the acts that took the lives of many people throughout the years, even if he is the leader of a legitimate political party?

In addition, this last point is also polemical as he was supposed not to hold any political role until 2021, restriction that was suspended due to a judicial mistake but that that has not be forgiven by the people affected by ETA’s violence. It does either help people understand his new role in politics the fact that Otegi, while assuring that the democratic path is nowadays the way to achieve political goals, has not condemned or apologized for the crimes committed by the group. Examples of these controversial opinions were given by him in an interview broadcasted by a Spanish TV channel last April, short after his liberation. In the interview, Otegi openly declared himself the political responsible for some of the tragedies occurred while ETA was still operating and referred to the term terrorism in ambiguous terms, assuring that he does not consider himself a terrorist but that the concept itself could also be reinterpreted. Another fuelling declaration made by Otegi was that he will not condemn today the acts that he had not condemn in the past.

I believe that in a democracy the freedom of expression is rightly preserved and it is desirable that there are different opinions that will confront the population, being some of the most hotly debated in Spain the ones related to the right for independence or the suggestions to break the unity of the country. Thus, it is necessary that the different members of the society feel free to express themselves without suffering the coercion of those in power. But, it is when the rights of others are denied, including their right to live, that this expression comes to trouble. Governing or wining by fear could, by any means, become acceptable or excusable, and targeting civilians pursuing a political goal can never be decontextualized and debated aseptically. Lives matter and political goals should be fought politically, using arguments, never by force. This apply not solely to groups using violence but also to governments failing to give solutions to political problems that divides the society, such as denying the right to large parts of a population to decide about their own future, for instance.

Thus, on the one side, governments should be responsive and ready to confront the 21st Century problems open-minded, to accept the will of people and to open up dialogues to find solutions to problems understood as unbearable by many. For instance, the position taken by the conservative party for many years of no negotiating with terrorists, just helped to have ETA still operative and it was just after the efforts of the socialist leader, José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, when the state took a more proactive and cooperative role that ended up with the dissolution of the terrorist group. Nevertheless, and despite the dissolution of the armed group, a solution has not been found to properly deal with this part of our modern history, as well as many victims of terrorism have not received proper reparation for their losses.

On the other side, while every political or ideological movement have their right of expression, they can only do so if they comply with, and are committed to, the principles of the democracy. Thus, for those that want to be re-accepted within the established political system, even if it is to completely change it, they should begin by honestly condemning violence, recognizing not solely how harmful could it be for the present and future societies to be drawn in conflicts, but also assuming the harm caused in the past. Accordingly, while all the parts imply in this conflict -that directly or indirectly has affected the society as a whole- should be engaged in an exercise of reflection, there should be some red lines that could not be crossed.

Having said that, my interpretation of what has happened in Catalonia is an unwise way to do politics. It is disappointing to use a polemic personality to mobilize votes, to relate a legitimate movement that seeks independence to a dubious example of fighting for a cause, and to shamelessly show complicity to what Otegi represents for the Spanish political life, interpretation that could certainly change if the things were done differently. It has been also a disappointing way to retake the debate about our recent history, the story of grievances and existing different identities that has entered into conflict amongst them. Nevertheless, if something can be learnt from this situation is that this last challenge sent by Catalonia highlights the debate that is needed between the central government and potentially secessionist regions in Spain, such as Catalonia and the Basque Country, debate that is certainly not happening with the conservative party, but may come to reality if in the next legislature a left wing coalition comes to power. For this to happen, a good deal of political will and talent is needed to find new approaches to face an ancient trouble and hopefully the new leaders to come will be humble enough to look back and learn something from the past.


[1] Oxford Dictionaries, http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/terrorism, (accessed 22 May 2016).

[2] Gerald Holton ` Reflections on modern terrorism´ Edge, March 2002, https://www.edge.org/conversation/reflections-on-modern-terrorism, (accessed 20 May 2016).

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