MADRID When most Americans hear the word Basque they think "terrorist." It's not quite fair, but that's what many Spaniards think, too. Basque terrorists kept their bargain for a cease-fire for nine months last year, but in December they detonated a car bomb in a parking garage at Madrid's Barajas International Airport, killing two and injuring dozens.
Most Spaniards large majorities, by the polls blame not only the bombers, but also the prime minister, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, for coddling the terrorists, for naively taking them at their word that they would negotiate honorably while keeping their arms.
A terrorist organization called Basque Fatherland and Liberty, or ETA for short, took responsibility for the car bomb. ETA is often compared to the Irish Republican Army, but the comparison is not exact. What the two organizations have held in common is their ability to kill without conscience. ETA is a leftist, separatist group that demands an independent Basque state carved from northern Spain and southwest France. The U.S. State Department lists it as a terrorist organization. ETA has killed 800 innocents over a 40-year campaign, including four killings over the last four years, and they wield political clout well beyond their numbers.
Most Spaniards hold Don Quixote, the famous tilter at windmills, as their comic ideal, but they regard ETA as real and dangerous. They are particularly angry about the prime minister's release from prison of an ETA terrorist convicted of 25 murders. Jose Ignacio de Juana Chaos no Don Quixote he was on a hunger strike when he was allowed to serve the final three years of his sentence in comfortable house arrest. The PM argued that this was better than transforming him to martyr in prison.
Terrorism, and the fear of it, has raised the temperature of the body politic despite an unusual chilly spring in Madrid. Debates and marches abound. So do reminders of past terrorist outrage. The government only last month dedicated an enormous glass memorial to the 191 slain and 1,800 injured at the Atocha railway station three years ago, and King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia were there, along with Prime Minister Zapatero, but it hardly mellowed public antagonism toward the party in power.
The Atocha Station terrorists turned out to be Islamist terrorists, angry that Spanish troops were part of George W. Bush's "coalition of the willing in Iraq," but the Spanish public is weary of living in fear of mayhem. They want all terrorists treated harshly. The anniversary offered the opposition, the conservative Popular Party, an occasion to put hundreds of thousands of angry Spaniards in the streets to rally against Zapatero's soft treatment of terrorists. Banners flying over a vast sea of angry demonstrators demanded: "No more concessions to ETA."
Ironies abound. Zapatero and the Socialists were regarded as having no chance to win office in 2004, but the Atocha Station bombings changed all that three days before the parliamentary elections. On winning the election and becoming prime minister, he quickly withdrew every Spanish soldier from Iraq. Now, although he's presiding over the strongest economy in nearly a decade, his softness toward terrorists, perceived or not, invites the punishment he inflicted on his predecessor.
Jose Aznar, the prime minister deposed by the Atocha Station bombers, sees signs of revivals of deep political division. He tells The Wall Street Journal that the Zapatero government gave the Madrid bombers what they wanted by withdrawing Spanish troops from Iraq, and he's appeasing further violence by courting ETA.
An exhibition of posters and photographs from the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) and Gen. Francisco Franco's subsequent decades of dictatorship, now on exhibit at the Reina Sofia Museum in Madrid, renders all that as history. But Aznar says the post-Franco bipartisan "compact is destroyed" and there is real danger in the "Balkanization of the country." He blames the Socialist government's encouragement of decentralization in the Basque country, Catalonia, and other smaller regions, as well as the absence of a consistent foreign policy, for diluting a sense of national identity.
After the December ETA bombings, Zapatero conceded his mistakes in a speech to the nation: "There can be no dialogue with violence." But almost nobody trusts him now, and soon he must decide whether to allow the political wing of ETA, currently banned from politics, to take a new name and run candidates in local elections in May. That's a windmill that would break the lance of Don Quixote.