Celebrating Terrorism?

Our first president, George Washington, in today’s political landscape might be viewed as a “terrorist”. Indeed, our first 13 colonies toward the end of the 18thcentury were fighting one of the great European super-powers at the time in Great Britain. We fought the British in a type of guerrilla warfare and won with the help of another super-power at the time, France. We celebrate our Day of Independence every 4thof July as we did earlier this month.

So, today, when hearing about terrorists celebrating we take a step back and ask—why? Or, what? Or, how?

We do not often hear about terrorists openly celebrating in daylight with popular support. Yet, there are pockets of the world in which they still do so, whether in Northern Ireland, or Palestine, or in the case of this past weekend, in the Spanish Basque-Country, Euskal Herria. And while celebrating terrorism may not be quite ubiquitous, it is not altogether uncommon either.

Some Spanish-Basques were engaging in a war of terrorism against Spain, and partly, against France, from 1959 until 2011. By 2018, the Basque terrorist group, “Basque Homeland and Freedom” (Euskadi Ta Askatasuna, ETA) was completely dissolved and their weapons verifiably decommissioned. Even so, ETA, after having become defunct, had not lost its popular support among a substantial portion of the population living in places like the Spanish province of Gipuzkoa.

I spent almost two years in Gipuzkoa in the Spanish Basque-Country in the late-1990s for my PhD research at the University of Oxford, initially to study Basque fishermen, and then to analyze a controversial and polemical commemorative-parade known as the Alarde.

During the late-1990s, celebrating terrorism was everywhere in the Basque Country. There were the solemn and nationalist funerals for deaths of ETA terrorists. There were the protests against the arrests of ETA terrorists and the political protests for freeing all Basque terrorists and massive political rallies for an “independent Basque-Country”. Patriotic Basques (abertzaleak) hoped for a unified and independent Basque-Country, uniting four Spanish-provinces with three French-provinces to form the irredentist-state of Euskadi.

One of my first academic articles, “The Basque Conflict Globally Speaking: Material Culture, Mass Media, and Basque Identity in the Wider World”(2002) discussed how violent nationalists surround themselves in material symbols so as to enhance their power and to emphasize their cause for themselves and to others, whether at political funerals, or political protests, or in the form of political graffiti or political jewelry, or political t-shirts, or other political material-forms. One of the most powerful and unifying symbols is the flag and in the Basque case, the Basque flag, known as the Ikurriña.

So, for me, it was no surprise to hear and read reports from Spain in recent days about Basque-townspeople celebrating former Basque-terrorists returning home after many years in prison. These former Basque-terrorists (etarrak) were fêted as heroes. Basque-townspeople were seen waving numerous Basque flags and applauding—the typical fanfare of Basque patriots.

Yet, such celebrations of terrorism were viewed elsewhere in Spain as outrageous and unwarranted. In my view, they also put the Basque peace process back even further from becoming a reality. Some Spanish politicians even questioned whether or not such celebrations in fact constituted crimes.

However, as any scholar of nationalism knows, “independence movements” are emotionally bound, and hardcore nationalists like Basque patriots (abertzaleak), are exuberant to celebrate their Basqueness and even unify over those in the past willing to use violence in the name of an independent Basque Country. Similar exuberance has been seen among Spanish-Catalans as well and Catalans voicing their support for the independence referendum in 2017as well as protests against Catalan nationalist leaders arrested with similar political scenes of nationalism there.

So, when former Basque terrorists returned home this past weekend to their Basque towns, José Javier Zabaleta to Hernani after 29 years in prison and Xabier Ugarte to Oñati after 22 years in prison, the Basque patriotic supporters were out in full Basque-pride waving their red-white-green Ikurriñakand voicing their approval with ecstatic applause and political signs reading “Presoak Extera” (Prisoners Return Home) along with fireworks.

Following the uproar over the appropriateness of such celebrations, the Basque regional government(El Gobierno Vasco) declared there will be no more future homages to Basque terrorists in the Basque region because of ethics and out of respect for the victims of terrorism. The Secretary General of Coexistence and Human Rights of the Basque Regional Government, Jonan Fernández, asked the Basque patriotic-left (izquierda abertzaleak) to desist in such celebrations “for the sensitivity and respect for the memories of the terrorist victims and the pain of their families” and because “it does not favor coexistence”. The Basque Regional Government also iterated it sympathized with the suffering victim families and expressed its indignation about such festivities. Furthermore, the Basque Regional President (Lehendakari), Iñigo Urkullu, issued a statement condemning the Basque patriotic-left for their homages to former Basque terrorists.

As someone who has lived in the Basque Country and has worked toward Basque peace, such celebrations supporting terrorism and lauding former terrorists do nothing to bring the Basque people toward peace, or Spain desiring more efforts toward reconciliation. Following more than fifty-years of terrorism, more needs to be done toward recovery, truth commissions, and trust. The new “Memorial Center for the Victims of Terrorism”is an excellent beginning toward education, outreach, and understanding. I can only hope for a sustained Basque peace as more and more former Basque terrorists return home and as reconciliation between ETA supporters and terrorist victims becomes essential for coexistence.

Certainly, the Basque people want peace and undoubtedly the Basque people deserve peace as well as the rest of Spain. More so, the victims of ETA terrorism deserve respect and the knowledge that Basque terrorism is indeed over and done.

Beti egon daiteke Euskal bakea! (May there always be Basque peace!)

J. P. Linstroth is a former Fulbright Scholar to Brazil. His recent book, Epochal Reckonings (2020), is the 2019 Winner of the Proverse Prize. He has a PhD (D.Phil.) from the University of Oxford. He is the author of Marching Against Gender Practice: Political Imaginings in the Basqueland (2015) and, most recently, author of Politics and Racism Beyond Nations: A Multidisciplinary Approach to Crises (2022).