A Rationale for Murder

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In the practical sense, it is terrifyingly easy for a person to go into the street and kill a stranger. All that is needed is a gun and the element of surprise. In the human sense, the act may be a little harder, but an obsession with the idea that this one death could help end a greater injustice helps to put conscience on dry ice.

Josè Luis Ruiz Casado fell victim to this ugly rationale last Thursday. As he left his apartment in the Barcelona suburb of Sant Adriá de Besòs at 7:40 a.m. to go to work, two men approached. They shot Ruiz in the back of the neck and fired another bullet into his head as he lay on the ground. They drove off in a stolen white Renault 19, leaving Ruiz crumpled on the pavement, his dark suit patched with his blood.

Most of Spain knew such a killing was coming; it was una muerte anunciada. The Basque terrorist group ETA has in recent weeks suffered heavy blows to its organization from a series of arrests in France and Spain. These were preceded by the loss of four of its members last month when the car in which they were transporting a bomb blew up in Bilbao, which would rather be known for its shiny Guggenheim Museum. ETA was widely expected to show that it had not lost its capacity to strike anywhere in Spain in the name of a separate Basque nation. That bloody crusade — appropriately, ETA's flag shows a snake wrapped around an ax — has cost 800 lives in the past three decades.

Ruiz was not, however, a completely random candidate for assassination. The 42-year-old father of two young children was a local councilor for Prime Minister Josè Marìa Aznar's Popular Party, which governs Spain. Aznar's stance against ETA has been consistent: without a permanent cease-fire, there can be no talks about anything, let alone independence, which in any case the majority of the 2 million Basques have not pursued via the ballot box. While a high percentage of Spaniards support Aznar's line — he was re-elected with a majority in March — ETA violence has spiraled since the group ended a unilateral 14-month truce late last year.

Ruiz was the 11th Popular Party official to have been murdered since early 1995. So far this year, ETA has killed 13 people, not all of them politicians. One of the victims was Josè María Korta, a nationalist businessman described by one of his friends in Bilbao last week as "Basque to the marrow." Korta's crime was to have called on Basque businesses to refuse to pay the "revolutionary tax" ETA extorts from them to finance its attacks.

Despite the ease with which it murdered Ruiz, there is little doubt that ETA's capacity to kill has been reduced, at least temporarily, by the latest string of arrests. One of the most spectacular came on the night of Sept. 15, when police in France closed in on a villa in the southwestern town of Bidart and nabbed Ignacio Gracia Arregui, 44, who is believed to have run much of ETA's campaign since 1992, including an aborted attempt by a sniper on the life of King Juan Carlos in Mallorca in 1995. Arregui's arrest was immediately followed by the roundup of 15 other suspects in the same area. Among them is Angel Pikabea Ugalde, 43, said to be responsible for stockpiling arms and explosives in France. Another is Josè Luis Turrillas Aranzeta, also 43, believed to be the head of ETA's larger logistics structure.

Last week the autonomous Basque police, the Ertzaintza, had their own breakthrough when they found an apartment north of Bilbao that was the base of the four bomb carriers who blew themselves up last month. The Ertzaintza said "abundant" documentation was found, plus a workshop for making the limpet bombs ETA likes to attach to the undersides of victims' cars.

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