Javier Melero, 6 February 2024
Protest at Barcelona airport in 2019, after the ‘procés’ ruling
Talking about terrorism without making a fool of yourself
Although it may seem unbelievable with all the nonsense we have heard in recent days, I can assure you that there are people who, when they talk about something as serious as terrorism, do so with rigour and in a way that does not offend anyone’s intelligence. The pity is that this category does not include some lawyers, politicians and opinion leaders who – albeit a few years too late – are now describing the activities of Tsunami Democràtic at Barcelona airport as terrorism.
So here I am: thinking up an original concept of terrorism without terror, without weapons or attacks, without murder or mutilation which, in the city of the victims of Hipercor, of Ernest Lluch and of the Rambla in 2017, might seem a bad joke to someone worse thoughtful than me. Not to say an insult.
Understand me. It is possible that the facts for which Tsunami is accused were criminal, and that any prosecutor with two fingers on the pulse should investigate them as more or less serious disturbances of public order, but when hyperbole is abused in search of the symbolic effect associated with the label of terrorism, it is not only the seams of the law that burst. It also bursts the seams of common sense. For the same price, terrorism is trivialised in an intolerable way, as has already happened with genocide and fascism.
Manuel Cancio, Professor of Criminal Law at the Autonomous University of Madrid, is serious about the issue when he says that “acts such as those grouped together in the Tsunami case can be classified as terrorism in Moscow, Istanbul or Tehran. They would never be so in Berlin, Paris or Bern. And rightly so in Madrid.
And another reasonable guy, Michael Burleigh, in his monumental cultural history of terrorism (Blood and Rage, 2008), puts in order the intuitions that any normal person, i.e. one who does not practice the cheating that some supervening legends are so fond of, might have about this type of crime. To this end, he reviews the atrocious chronicle that ranges from the Russian nihilists to the Baader-Meinhof gang; from the Loyalist and Republican assassins of Northern Ireland to the self-absorbed ETA members amidst cassocks and readings of Che Guevara and the jihadists of Levante.
In short, to what you and I have always described as terrorism: the morally sordid and criminal action of those subjects for whom the destruction inflicted on any innocent victim is a fleeting compensation for a real or imaginary grievance, or for more abstract grievances that are the cause of their rage and hysteria. Meanwhile, their victims have in common only that a radical and resentful loser aspires to destroy or mutilate them in order to advance into a world whose existence virtually no one desires.
When hyperbole is abused, the seams of the law, and also of common sense, burst at the seams.
That is why defining terrorism is also a moral question. If you want to create a legal concept that encompasses an atrocity, you have to live up to a terror that is repugnant to any civilised conscience, or do something else. Ben Emerson, the UN special rapporteur on counter-terrorism, at least tries and, while acknowledging that there is no internationally agreed definition of terrorism, proposes one whose essential element is attacks deliberately directed against civilian populations that involve serious human rights abuses and are wholly incompatible with basic principles of humanity: “In the context of armed conflict, such acts constitute war crimes. When they are part of a widespread or systematic attack against the civilian population, they also constitute crimes against humanity”.
As you will understand, we are not talking about bloodless occupations of airports, or more or less aggressive confrontations with the security forces: those who refer to terror and know what they are talking about are talking about something else.
The problem with Spain’s peculiarity in terms of terrorism is that, after the disastrous reform of 2015 – promoted by the PP and enthusiastically taken on board by the PSOE: you know, “sense of State” -, the lamentable definition of our Code – a legal monstrosity constructed with demolition materials shot here and there – can allow an imaginative judge to investigate for terrorism even a group of ecologists who want to free the bull with balls on fire..
Some warned that this could happen. Obviously, nobody paid any attention to them.