March 17, 2004 | Commentary on National Security and Defense

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 this:

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 election.

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 office.

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 Europe.

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 Friday.

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.

About the Author

Helle C. Dale Senior Fellow for Public Diplomacy
The Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom

First appeared in The Washington Times