Terror for terror’s sake

Behind the Madrid bombings.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

With the death toll climbing towards 200, the bomb attacks on railway stations in Madrid appear inexplicable; who in their right mind would plant bombs on crowded trains at the height of rush hour? Yet they fit into a global pattern of terror for terror’s sake. During the past decade we have seen the rise of civilian-targeted ‘spectaculars’ aimed more at provoking outrage than realising political goals.

So far it remains unclear who was behind the attacks in Madrid; many suspect the Basque separatist group Eta. The bombings look like a reminder that terrorism is not always, as many imagine, a third world thing, executed by foreign fanatics who ‘do things differently’. In recent years, some of the most striking acts of terror have come from within the West. Timothy McVeigh, whose truck bomb killed 168 in Oklahoma in 1995, was a former US solider and veteran of the first Gulf War – as was the elder of the Washington snipers, sentenced to death this week on charges of terrorism. The 9/11 attacks were carried out by fairly well-to-do Saudis, most of whom had lived or been educated in the West. This week, the Islamic group Hamas released the last video testaments of two young Asians from Hounslow and Derby in England, both of whom volunteered to blow themselves up in Israel.

This kind of terrorism has its origins in problems within Western societies, rather than in political battles fought ‘over there’. At a time of great political and moral uncertainty in the West, various disgruntled individuals and groups are lashing out with no clear purpose. Anti-capitalists smash up coffee shops; anti-abortionists shoot doctors; at the more extreme end, some groups crash aeroplanes and blow up buildings.

This helps to explain why contemporary terrorism is often casualty-heavy. Freed from responsibility to a distinct community, and with no grounding in any ideology or political principles, today’s terrorist has fewer constraints on his actions. As terrorism expert Jonathan Tucker argues, because today’s terrorists ‘are not motivated by political ideology on the far left or right’, they are more likely to be ‘extremists…with an apocalyptic mindset’ (1).

In the absence of political responsibility or agreed social norms, terrorists take actions that in the past would have been unthinkable. This can be glimpsed in Madrid.

Spanish politicians and commentators insist that it must have been Eta, or at least individuals linked to Eta; they point out that two weeks ago police arrested Eta members trying to drive a van packed with 1100 pounds of explosives towards Madrid, and at Christmas thwarted an earlier attempt to blow up a Madrid railway station (2). Arnaldo Otegi, leader of Batasuna, the political wing of Eta, claims that it was ‘Arab resistance’ to the occupation of Iraq that bombed Madrid; Eta itself has thus far said nothing.

If it was Eta, the attacks illustrate the shift from traditional political violence towards terrorism as a violent scream of rage. Eta, which started its violent campaign for Basque separatism in the late 1960s, was never the national liberation movement it fancied itself to be. The Basques are not oppressed and Basque nationalism is largely a modern invention, a political cover for an attempt to protect the region’s economic privileges.

Yet Eta’s campaign took place within traditional political and military structures. Its targets were largely politicians or policemen; when an Eta bomb killed 21 shoppers in Barcelona in 1987, the group claimed it was a ‘mistake’ and apologised profusely (3). The Madrid bombings, by contrast, make no political sense and have no clear or stated aim; and this time, civilians, crowded together during rush hour, were the explicit target.

The fact that Eta, or whoever did it, has not claimed responsibility also fits in with contemporary terrorist trends. Nobody has yet claimed responsibility for 9/11, or for some of the scrappy terror attacks in the third world over the past two years. This shows that such attacks are not political acts, which an individual or group might want to claim ownership of, in order to add weight to a broader campaign. Responsibility implies an admission that you did something and that you did it for a reason. When terrorism is merely reactive and nihilistic, responsibility is not important – the act (and, most importantly, the response to it) is all.

The West’s fearful obsession with terrorism today acts as an invitation to groups to carry out attacks like the mass murder in Madrid. They see that every local terrorist attack from Bali to Istanbul now makes international headlines, prompting panic in Western capitals. This reaction to acts of terror has the effect of inflaming terrorism, as other little groups seek to make their mark on the world stage through violence. Whoever bombed Madrid – Eta, ‘Arab resistance’, or bin Laden supporters – must have known that a bloody assault is guaranteed to grab world attention; and that the bloodier it is, the more attention it will get.

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Topics Politics


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