Describing this week’s sickening atrocity in Madrid, people understandably reach for hyperbole.
“The worst terrorist attack in memory in mainland Europe,” the pundits say.
Such a definite statement might surprise the elderly citizens of, say, Dresden, the German city incinerated overnight by British and US firebombing that left perhaps 100,000 people dead.
But wasn’t that ‘war’, rather than ‘terror’? Actually, the bombing of civilian areas by both sides in World War 2 was a deliberate, rather controversial policy.
The tactic was often called ‘terror bombing’ or ‘terrorism’, even by its practitioners.
Many US military chiefs didn’t like the idea at first and had to be persuaded by the British. But eventually the Yanks went to horrific technical lengths to ensure maximum civilian carnage.
They even hired German refugee architects and furniture makers to build replicas of Berlin’s working-class homes in the Utah desert, so incendiary chemical-cocktails could be tried on authentic targets.
A terrorist testing-camp, you might say.
The ‘civilised’ states whose leaders now solemnly declare that no political cause justifies attacks on civilians are steeped in their blood.
Today, a Middle-Easterner might look at the reliable estimates of 10,000 civilians killed in the invasion and occupation of Iraq, with the Spanish government’s support; or at Israel picking-off Palestinian children one by one. And he or she might wonder about this alleged reverence for civilian life.
Bill Clinton’s UN ambassador and secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, was asked on US TV in 1996 about the Iraq sanctions. What about the deaths of 500,000 children?
“We think the price is worth it,” she said.
Whether or not al-Qaeda was involved in Madrid, it is a disgusting organisation whose leaders show a callous indifference to human life. But they didn’t lick it off the ground.
Whatever the solution to the Madrid mystery–al-Qaeda? ETA? Real ETA?–the train-bombings are of course a terrible escalation by the standards of recent terror in western Europe.
Although you’re still much likelier to die in a road accident, this is frightening. Irish people are normally keen travellers, but we’ll feel less safe; and at home we may look nervously at Shannon Airport, still stopover-host to 10,000-plus US troops each month.
On 9/11, terrorists brutally tried to provoke the US into war. America took the bait, so that between the Twin Towers and the greater slaughter in Afghanistan and Iraq, the stakes have been raised.
To be a terror player in this time of war, some say you’ve got to inflict war-level casualties–“three figures or, ideally, four figures”, one analyst said after Madrid’s 3/11.
These stakes are unlikely to lower again soon. Especially as it suits many people to keep us on a war footing.
In fact, the precedent that should spring to mind this week is not New York or Dresden or Baghdad. It’s Bologna, Italy, where in 1980 a train-station bomb killed 85 people.
That slaughter came in the context of a long, low-level left-wing terror campaign, aimed largely at government and corporate targets. The Bologna bomb provoked a predictable crackdown and crisis.
But that Italian bomb was placed by right-wing terrorists. They were later found to be working with elements of the Italian establishment who were keen to exploit the climate of fear and repression. ‘The strategy of tension’, it was called.
Keep that story in mind when we think about Madrid. Whoever ‘dunnit’, we might well get tense and be tempted to fall-in behind the ‘war leaders’ of the civilised world.
The rhetoric of Bush, Blair and Aznar does make a convincing soundtrack to the terrible TV pictures from Spain.
However, there and elsewhere, the peaceful pursuit of justice still beats being marched off to battle. It’s futile to think we can somehow end ‘terrorism’ as a concept, least of all with a war against it.
Yes, the stakes are very high. But we don’t need to play with people’s lives.
HARRY BROWNE is a journalist and a lecturer in the school of media at Dublin Institute of Technology. This article was written for Ireland’s Evening Herald newspaper. He can be contacted at email@example.com