In the 70s, when much of South and Central America were in political turmoil, I read an impressive book about the violation of human rights there. The book was full of torture stories. I was most impressed by the way that ordinary people didn't buckle under but I also pondered where the torturers came from. One Sunday you have a nice civilised country but by Monday morning there are people connecting electric wires to mens' testicles and stubbing out their fag ends on the soles of peoples' feet. What's the selection process, what skills and qualities are on the job description?
At the time when the IRA and UFF and everyone else in Northern Ireland was going at it I heard some bloke, who'd served in the British Army, describing a common technique for obtaining information from prisoners. They put a plastic bucket over their victim's head and then beat the bucket with a mop handle. It made me realise just how easy torture can be and I still, sometimes, think of that as I shop amongst the Addis stuff in the supermarket.
About a month ago a judge, talking in some conference here in Spain, said that he thought ETA (The Basque terrorist organisation) members had been routinely tortured by Spanish Security Forces. Now I have no idea whether he's right but in all probability he is. If I were a Guardia Civil member, who had just seen some mates blown to pieces by a bomb, I might well become a little over zealous too. The Association of the Victims of Terrorism thought the judge should be sacked. They thought that it was outrageous that he should suggest that the Security Forces were other than on the side of the angels.
A couple of days ago a branch of Local Government in Madrid decided to ban a flag from a big football match final due to take part in the capital on Sunday. The flag is a version of the official Catalan flag with some adaptations. It has a nationlist significance and is a symbol often used by people who want an independent Catlonia. I was apalled, incensed and troubled by the decision in equal measure. The idea of trying to stop an opinion being expressed, in a democracy, by waving a flag seems akin to totalitarianism to me. I know that some Spaniards were of the same opinion but I got the feeling that for many Spaniards the equation was flag waving equals Catalan Separatists, Catalan Separatists bad, Stop them. Four legs good, two legs bad!
During the last twelve months a law has been enacted in Spain that fines or imprisons people for doing things that the Government thinks endangers citizens. It's not as though Spain is short of laws to deal with wrongdoers. You can get into trouble if you go burning and looting. Attacking people is also considered to be a bit beyond the pale. In fact if you can think of some bad thing I 'm pretty sure there is a Spanish law against doing it. There wasn't, though, a law to stop people posting videos to YouTube of police officers beating people with sticks for no obvious reason. The fines for scaling the fence at a nuclear power plant and hanging up a banner were related to trespass and damage to property. Organising a demonstration without a licence wasn't that big a deal either in the punishment afterwards sense. But the new law toughened that up. I forget, and I can't be bothered to look because it makes me seethe, but that banner might now cost 300,000 or 600,000€. Suck on that you Greenpeace types! The result? Someone was arrested in a town close to us when they posted a picture on Facebook of a police car parked in a disabled parking slot. It was considered a slur on the local police. Now I may just have an alternative view about that incident but it's perhaps better that I don't write it down or they may be knocking on my door.
So, suggesting that police officers may have been involved in torture or lazy parking, waving a flag or taking a video could, under certain circumstances, lead to people being sacked, fined or jailed. These things don't go unchallenged of course, the courts overturned the flag waving ban yesterday, but the concensus view makes me wonder if Spaniards have quite got the hang of this democracy thing.
What seems blatantly obvious to me, that having a different opinion should not, generally, lead to legal action seems to slip by a lot of Spaniards. The judge's opinion that torture happened is confused with siding with the evil that was or is ETA. Supporting the right of anyone to wave a Nationalist flag is confused with supporting that Nationalism and exposing police officers for abusing their role is only a step away from robbing a bank.
Maybe it's just a case of old habits dying hard.