It’s still a nest of terrorists around here, but nobody worries about it much. These days, when you hear a helicopter at night it’s only the medevac chopper bringing some urgent case down to the main hospital at Bayonne on the coast.
In the bad old days, the helicopter you heard would have been using infrared detectors to spot Basque terrorists heading across the mountains at night into Spain.
This south-western corner of France is just as Basque as the much larger Basque-speaking provinces of Spain, but ETA (Euskadi ta Askatasuna – Basque Land 20and Liberty) always used France as a safe rear area and did its actual killing across the frontier.
The terrorists are still around, and they enjoy a certain amount of local support.
Last Saturday was the summer festival in our local town, Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port (or Donibane Garazi, in Basque), and everybody for miles around was drinking and dancing in the square below the citadel, waiting for it to get dark enough for the fireworks to begin.
Suddenly banners were unfurled on the city walls:
Murdered? Where is Jon?”
So you ask, and it turns out that everybody knows who Jon is.
He’s a local man, universally believed to be an ETA member, who got 20on a train to Toulouse but never arrived.
Everybody also believes that he was carrying a large sum of money for ETA, which leads nasty cynics like myself to contemplate several alternative possible reasons for his disappearance, but local opinion is convinced that it was the state that got him.
Yet local opinion is not really very upset about it. Most people don’t care much whether the French police seized or killed Jon, or if somebody else robbed and killed him, or even if he just decided to disappear and live on the proceeds.
It’s all part of the game that some play on the fringes of society, and they’re welcome to play it as long as they don’t frighten the horses.
Across the border in Spain, where the killing happens, people take ETA much more seriously, and there is less sympathy for the killers among Spanish Basques than among French Basques.
But there is also irreducible hard core of support for the extreme nationalist option.
Spain does not let political parties that openly support terrorism run in national elections, but when a radical Basque party was allowed to run in the June elections for the European parliament it got 140,000 votes.
That’s only five percent of the population in those provinces.
The terrorist struggle for Basque independence has so few supporters because the Basque provinces of Spain already have almost complete control over their own affairs.
But that tiny minority of hard-liners is enough to sustain the armed struggle forever.
The French police now cooperate closely with their Spanish counterparts in trying to catch the ETA militants who shelter in the French Basque provinces, but even when they didn’t, nobody in Spain suggested invading France to stamp out the terrorist sanctuaries. That would be grotesquely disproportionate, like invading Afghanistan to protect Americans from Arab terrorists.
The ETA story, like that of the IRA in Northern Ireland, teaches us three things. The first is that you don’t need a territorial “base” to carry out terrorist attacks; an isolated farmhouse or an anonymous city apartment will do.
The second is that you should treat terrorism like any other crime: use the police to track the perpetrators down, and don’t inflate the whole problem enormously by getting the army involved.
The third is that you must not expect a decisive victory.
When we talk about a “war on crime”, we do not expect all the criminals to come out one day with their hands up, after which there will be no more crime. Success is defined in terms of keeping the crime RATE down.
Success in anti-terrorist operations has to be seen in similar terms, and anybody who promises you more is lying.
Eight years of the “war on terror” have created a huge military, corporate and bureaucratic lobby in the United States whose livelihood depends on a highly militarised approach to terrorism, so it will be a long time before a saner strategy prevails in Washington.
Britain’s learning curve in Northern Ireland was thirty years long, and Russia has learned nothing yet in Chechnya.
But people generally do the right thing in the end – after they have exhausted all the alternatives.
Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.