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On the Other Side



It's the evening of Sept. 22 and I'm sitting in a local restaurant in Castellon, a beach resort along Spain's Mediterranean Coast eating chuletas de cordero, Spanish lamb chops with salad, red wine and homemade custard. The evening is alive with couples and groups of friends enjoying a relaxing Saturday evening meal.

Europeans might have returned to a semblance of normalcy, but most share America's shock and horror. The horrible death toll includes not only Americans, but people from more than 40 nations. Eight Spaniards are among the missing.

On Sept. 11, everyone was a New Yorker. The attack is the talk all over Europe. It's still the top story on TV, and national newspapers dedicate 20 to 30 pages in daily coverage.

At the same time, there appears to be more air to breathe on this side of the Atlantic when it comes to political discussion of this complicated and volatile issue. Commentators, politicians and columnists are raising important questions in a vigorous dialogue that includes voices from all sides of the political spectrum. Europeans in general are hoping an international coalition will punish the guilty parties with a thorough and extensive process without reverting to bloody conflict.

Europeans are also skeptical that bin Laden can be captured through any sort of traditional military operation. People here are nervously watching the American military build up and escalation of threats of a direct invasion of Afghanistan. Europe knows the horror and savagery of war more intimately than America. Millions died in both world wars and tens of thousands more in Spain's bloody civil war in the 1930s.

My Spanish friends are incredulous that a war against Afghanistan, or perhaps other Arab nations, will solve the problem. Indeed, many here believe it would only make things much, much worse. Europeans have learned the hard way that violence only begets more violence and begins an intractable spiral of violence that is very hard to extract from.

In an interview this week in El Periodico, Barcelona's leading daily, a Soviet colonel recounted the difficulties of invading Afghanistan in 1979, a frustrating occupation that lasted a decade.

Throughout the Soviet/Afghan war, the Soviet army was intent on capturing Ahmed Sha Masoud, a tenacious rebel leader hidden away in Afghanistan's Pamir Mountains. Seven times the Russians cornered Masoud. They rained missiles down on his stronghold and sent in elite troops, and each time Masoud escaped and Soviet soldiers died in vain. Ironically, Masoud, who held off the Soviets, was assassinated just two days before the Sept. 11 terrorist attack against the United States.

Notably, many around the world look to Spain as a model on combating terrorism. Since the 1960s, extremists in Spain's Basque Country have been fighting a terrorist campaign in the Pyrenees mountain range, which separates northeast Spain and part of southwest France.

The Spanish government has battled the Basque terrorist group ETA, which has been fighting to create an independent nation in the area, with vigilance and moderation. They've resisted provocations by the Basque terrorists to escalate the violence and descend into a spiral of violence and retribution. And, the Spanish government has pursued action against the terrorists through the legal institutions of the country.

The government has ceded significant autonomous powers to the Basque Country; its own parliament, schools, language and police, among others -- not from concessions to terrorists but as part of a new constitution Spain created following the death of dictator Francisco Franco in 1975.

The struggle continues -- just this week, Spanish and French authorities arrested one of the ETA group's top leaders. But there are no tanks on the streets of cities like San Sebastian or Bilboa, and people live in relative peace.

As far as the United States' tactics, Europeans are hoping calmer heads will prevail.

And as for me, I will be savoring these Spanish meals until next week when I return to the United States, leaving behind friends on this side of the Atlantic to join friends on the other side of the Atlantic. In many ways, I'm leaving a continent that long ago lost its innocence and returning to an America that's very different from the one I left behind, just months ago.

Andrew Hood is a journalist who has worked extensively throughout Europe since 1996. He will be joining the Independent editorial staff for several months beginning in mid-October.

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