Spain's Day of Infamy
On March 11, terrorists hit Spain with a human catastrophe that has
by now claimed over 200 lives and left more than 1400 people
wounded. And on March 14, Spanish voters inflicted a great
political tragedy on their country, by defeating the sitting
government of Jose Maria Aznar.
The shock waves of both evens will be felt far beyond Spain's
borders, including in Washington. Never before have terrorists
changed the outcome of an election in a major European country. But
before we get further into the political analysis, let me say
The first reaction of Americans, who know the impact of terrorism
first hand, should be to acknowledge and empathize with the horror
and trauma Spain experienced with the attack on its commuter trains
in the early hours of Thursday morning. The people of Spain deserve
our sympathy, even as we worry about the implications of their
The night of March 10 was one of great jubilation in Madrid. The
city's famous soccer team, Real Madrid, beat the German team Bayern
Muenchen, and the streets resounded with celebrations. Nothing
could have been further from people's minds than the massacre,
death and mayhem that followed next morning. The bombing was the
bloodiest act of terrorism in Spain's history, unlike anything
inflicted previously by the Basque terrorist group ETA.
Those on the ground in Madrid speak of terror and confusion. Like
Americans on September 11, 2001, people telephoned frantically to
find out if friends and family on their way to work had been hit.
All trains stopped operating. Roads were blocked. Hospitals filled
up, and calls went out for blood donations. Cell phone networks
shut down due to the sheer volume of calls. To Americans, this all
sounds so hauntingly familiar. And it happened just three days
before a general election.
Now, in the first hours while the initial suspicions were directed
at the ETA, many thought that the government of Mr. Aznar would
stand to gain as a result. Mr. Aznar had conducted a successful
campaign against the Basque terrorists over the past 8 years, and
several recent ETA plots had been foiled by Spanish police,
including a train bombing and a huge truck bomb. Polls predicted
that his conservative Partido Popular would win another four years
In the next two days, however, clues pointing to al Qaeda,
including a tape claiming responsibility found in a garbage can,
turned popular sentiment. The Aznar government was accused of
trying to withholding the truth, and widespread unhappiness with
the prime minister's staunch support of the United States in Iraq
bubbled to the surface.
What's more, a large proportion of the Spanish electorate
traditionally wait till the last moment to make up their minds. The
result on Sunday was a record turnout, particularly of young
people, and it produced a resounding surprise election victory for
Spain's Socialist Party. In-coming Prime Minister Jose Luis
Rodriguez Zapatero immediately affirmed his election pledge to pull
Spain's 1,300 troops out of Iraq come next summer. And he declared
his intention to ally himself with France and Germany in
Out of all this, there is much bad news, but some good, too. The
terrorists, probably al Qaeda types, will certainly have been
encouraged. Spanish voters punished a prime minister who has been
strong and reliable in the face of terrorism in Spain and abroad.
The election will be read as an act of appeasement, and could set a
very disturbing trend in strategic terrorism. And it now seriously
threatens our coalition in Iraq.
On a slightly more hopeful note, the tragedy in Spain will make
Europe finally wake up to the reality of terrorism. American
commentators have focused mostly on sentiments of "appeasement,"
but little on other kinds of reactions in Europe. "This doesn't
make me love Bush," wrote one European exchange student in Madrid,
"but it has given me a better understanding of what Americans have
been going through."
On the political level, the sitting President of the European Union
Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern, declared Monday night that these
desperate acts should not scare people from seeking democracy and
justice. European governments are consulting through the EU and
NATO, proposing to bring a new anti-terrorism plan to the table
when their justice ministers meet in an emergency session on
Many have strong reservations about the EU constitution as it has
been developing under French leadership. Still, it is certainly
more reasonable for Europeans to react by strengthening their own
efforts against terrorism, and declare their determination to fight
it, than by blaming the United States for bringing this tragedy on
the people of Spain.
First appeared in The Washington Times