ETA sees the light

IF ANY GOOD COULD BE SAID to have come from the growing plague of Islamic fundamentalist terrorism, it's that its scale and bloodthirstiness have ruined terrorism for everyone else. Wednesday's announcement of a "permanent" cease-fire by the Basque separatist group ETA, which follows the earlier disarming of the Irish Republican Army, shows that terror has lost much of its romance, at least in the Western world.

ETA, one of the last major terrorist groups operating in Western Europe, was already losing steam before the 2004 train bombing by Islamic terrorists in Madrid that killed 191 people. But that event dealt the group a blow from which it never recovered. In the Basque country, the bombing was seen as such an atrocity that it killed the local appetite for terror and helped dry up support for ETA.

For all that, there is a grave danger that the head of the ETA snake hasn't yet been cut off -- or if it has, that it's still capable of biting.

The group, formed in 1959 to fight heavy repression of the Basque people by Spanish dictator Gen. Francisco Franco, has announced cease-fires before, only to give them up when the government refused to accede to its demands. It has killed an estimated 800 people since 1968.

One reason ETA may consider this a propitious time to engage in cease-fire talks is the perceived weakness of Socialist Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, who in April 2004 succeeded Jose Maria Aznar, the conservative leader who was adamant about putting an end to ETA. Zapatero should quickly dissuade ETA of any illusions by refusing to engage in any substantive negotiations with the group, or its political allies, beyond the narrow terms of its surrender.

ETA's announcement Wednesday included no mention of giving up its weapons, which must be a precondition of talks. Any major concessions by the Spanish government would rightly be seen as giving in to terrorists.

The Basque people, and their legitimate aspirations for cultural identity and a degree of autonomy within Spain, have long been tainted by ETA's terror, which is inspired in part by hateful racial supremacist theories. And it's worth pointing out that in today's democratic Spain, the region hardly suffers the oppression it did under Franco. The Basques already won a good deal of autonomy in 1979, and they stand to win still more.

On Thursday, a Spanish parliamentary committee passed a statute that will grant considerable autonomy to the neighboring region of Catalonia, including the right to call itself a "nation." The deal, which now awaits only a rubber-stamp vote by the parliament's lower house, may pave the way for a similar agreement in the Basque country.

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