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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 14 December 2018

Eta’s demise proves a far bigger point: that terror is ultimately doomed to fail

History tell us people aim to be affluent, better-educated, freer in lifestyle and enjoy rational problem solving – few of which can be achieved by violence, writes Damien McElroy

A civil guard inspects the wreckage of a car that exploded outside the barracks of Spain's paramilitary Guardia Civil in the northern town of Durango in the Basque region, in August, 2007. Rafa Rivas / AFP
A civil guard inspects the wreckage of a car that exploded outside the barracks of Spain's paramilitary Guardia Civil in the northern town of Durango in the Basque region, in August, 2007. Rafa Rivas / AFP

The world has never been safer, despite what headlines might lead you to think.

To those who dispute the premise, I offer the example of Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (Eta), which disbanded last week after nearly six decades of terror.

Eta’s violence was ideological. The Basque nationalism they fought for was never feasible.

I asked a Catalan independence supporter in Barcelona last December why a form of autonomy was not sufficient. After all, the Basques had killed people in return for theirs, I suggested. The Catalan man sneered with contempt. The Basques, he said, were nothing more than fishermen for the Castilians whereas the Catalans were a proud historic nation.

Be that as it may, there was a period when the atrocities of the Basque separatist group Eta dominated the news.

This was the era of nihilistic leftist terror. The Red Brigades of Italy, Baader Meinhof in Germany and November 17 in Greece were all socialist outfits that shocked Europe with their brutal attacks.

All were eventually defenestrated and forced by security pressure to call ceasefires or disband. Only the IRA in Ireland was, through its political wing Sinn Fein, habilitated into mainstream politics.

Jonathan Powell, the British official who negotiated peace with Sinn Fein, argued last week that Eta’s disbandment was proof that to achieve peace, it was necessary to talk to the men of violence. In the case of Eta, mediators had decommissioned its arsenal and even secured a statement of remorse to its victims.

Yet Eta’s demise proves a far bigger point: that history is a force against terror.

A look back at the pictures of devastation caused by the bombs and the gun attacks is as harrowing as anything that emerges from battlefields in Iraq or Syria today.

Yet it is a whole sphere of violence that has passed into history. It is one of the reasons why the world has never been safer – alongside declining state-on-state conflict levels and lower murder rates from criminal activity.

In the West, post-Second World War prosperity had a dark underbelly. Fifty years ago the students of Paris took to the barricades to challenge President Charles de Gaulle. That uprising is now viewed in many parts through rose-tinted spectacles. It is seen as an intellectual flowering. It is seen as a challenge to austere and minimal government. It is seen as bringing forth more generous and supportive government policies as well as social change for a more inclusive era.

But for every Daniel Cohen Bendit and Petra Kelly moving into parliament to shake up politics, there was a balaclava-wearing gunman inflicting suffering on unsuspecting towns and villages. Aurora Intxausti, an El Pais journalist, recalled last week how the group had planted a bomb on her doorstep, tying a detonator cord to the handle. It failed to explode when she opened the door carrying her children aged 18 months and three years, accompanied by her husband.

Eta wanted to “socialise the suffering” and wiping out the journalist and her family would certainly have achieved that goal.

Achieving goals is just one source of violence. Another is seeking some form of dominance or superiority over either a foe or a whole population group. A third source is ideology.

Over time, all three are tested against the human instinct for life to improve. Just as the 2011 cycle of revolutions and civil wars was breaking throughout the Middle East region, Harvard neuroscientist Stephen Pinker released a book, The Better Angels of Our Nature.

In it he stated that individualism, cosmopolitanism, reason and science pose a constant challenge to the sources of violence.

Put another way, people aim to be affluent, better-educated, freer in lifestyle and enjoy rational problem solving in response to daily events. It is possible to attain some of these in a violent situation but not all and not among a majority of the population. Therefore over time, the agents of violence face revulsion, fatigue, resentment and eventually irrelevance.

So why is life for so many haunted by the spectre of death and destruction? In part because we have a heightened concept of the value of life, we are repulsed by examples of death. Life for most is no longer nasty, brutish or short, so when examples of that occur we are sickened.

There is also the impact of much more pervasive, intimate and sophisticated media coverage of death and destruction. For those not directly impacted by violence, either geographically or through family members and friends, the suffering is much closer and more immediate than ever before in human history.

Today’s terror campaigns correspond to the Eta playbook. The violence is graphic and unjust, made for the TV news cycle. That too is why most terror campaigns are ultimately doomed.