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Manipulating terror

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From the moment I heard about the horrible explosions at the Atocha train station in Madrid, I couldn't believe it was Basque separatists. I lived just blocks from that train station. I covered ETA terrorist attacks (or wrote about them, anyway) for United Press International and the English-language service of the Spanish news agency, EFE, for three years. And this did not sound like ETA (the Basque-language acronym for "Basque Homeland and Freedom"--words that roll right off the keyboard, I've written them so many times.)

ETA is a terrorist organization, without question. But it usually has been direct in its attacks--focusing mostly on Spanish police and military officers it considered an occupying force. Mass death and destruction were not part of the group's identity. It is also affiliated with a political party (Herri Batasuna) and knows how to be strategically adept; one of the organization's terrorist practices was to harmlessly blow up small bombs early in the morning on beaches popular with tourists, making headlines in the British tabloids that threatened tourism dollars, but (usually) not shedding blood. Spaniards were thankful at least for that.

Most Spaniards understand that about ETA, even if they despise the group. That's why the insistent claims of right-wing Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar that ETA was responsible for the explosions this month that killed more than 200 people had to ring false to them. Some say that al Qaeda essentially elected socialist Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero by reminding Spaniards--most of whom opposed the war--of Aznar's support for the U.S. invasion of Iraq. But there was something else at work, and the truth is now coming out: Aznar himself was trying to spin coverage of the attacks to his own advantage by blaming ETA, when evidence was mounting in the other direction.

According to reports by Radio France International, Aznar personally telephoned top editors of Spain's leading media to convince them that blame for the attacks belonged with ETA, hoping that would give his Popular Alliance party an advantage. Journalists are now enraged at the manipulation, pointing even to a state-television documentary about ETA assassinations and bombings that was shown on Friday, the day after the bombings and two days before the elections.

That kind of cynical manipulation seems inconceivable--until you read Fiona Morgan's story this week about how the far right in the United States tried to blister Cary's own David Potorti and his organization, September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows, for suggesting that the tragedies of 9-11 should not be used to anyone's political advantage. The group criticized President Bush for using scenes from Ground Zero in his campaign advertising and asked all political candidates to refrain from exploiting those images. I think most people, even Bush supporters, can see how that might be offensive. But Bush and his supporters in the right-wing media have launched a political attack against those who raised the question.

Just like Aznar, Bush is trying to manipulate a terrorist attack to his own political advantage. It's just a matter of time before Americans, like Spaniards, see that for what it is.

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We've postponed our annual poetry contest issue, which was originally scheduled for March 31. Instead it will run in three weeks, on April. 14, with a reading to follow that Saturday night at Quail Ridge Books and Music in Raleigh.

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