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Madrid's vanished horror
The bombings poisoned the political atmosphere and deepened the social divide
Victor de la Serna
Friday July 8, 2005
Explosions on jam-packed trains during rush hours with no prior warning, horrific results in terms of deaths, maimings and injuries, chaos and panic in a major European capital city, early if unreliable claims of responsibility by obscure al-Qaida subsidiaries: the resemblances between the 3/11 terrorist attacks in Madrid and the 7/7 attacks in London are so obvious that comment appears superfluous. The differences may be more revealing.
The key difference, of course, was that three days after 3/11 there was a 3/14 in Spain: general elections that the conservatives of the then prime minister, José María Aznar, were likely to win despite the fact that he was not himself running and despite widespread popular opposition to his backing the American invasion of Iraq. In the end, however, the Socialist party won after three venomous days of recriminations about the terrorist actions and their perpetrators.
These electoral effects contaminated reactions to the bombings in a deep and lasting manner - the same will not happen in the UK, where there are no electoral urgencies at present.
In Spain, that contamination was so intense that the main point in the recent report of the parliamentary inquiry into the attacks, 16 months after the events, was not related to the perpetrators but to the performance of Mr Aznar's cabinet. It was criticised by the current parliamentary majority for not having prepared better for Islamic terrorist actions and for "misleading" public opinion when it insisted early on that the Basque terrorist group, Eta, was most likely responsible - which would have helped the conservatives' electoral push.
For their part, the conservatives have, since then, devoted all their strenuous efforts to defending their record. They also insist that too many question marks remain about the 2004 attacks - the physical perpetrators were petty Madrid-based criminals; the explosives used were sold by traffickers in northern Spain who are suspected to have supplied Eta too; regional police authorities had known about those dealings since 2001 but had not acted. A local Socialist party official had even been visiting a suspected Islamist terrorist in jail. Ties between the suspected terrorists and the Moroccan secret services have surfaced.
Amid the barrage of political infighting, the actual investigation of the origins and ramifications of the attacks has proceeded at snail's pace. Several suspected terrorists were blown up - or blew themselves up - in an apartment on the outskirts of Madrid days after the bombing, which certainly made things more difficult.
In addition, it is hard to envision anyone among those who died or those who have been arrested having enough planning skills and technical sophistication to have organised the highly synchronised attacks and having set up the sophisticated explosive devices that were detonated with cell phones.
The poisoned political atmosphere has provoked a deepening social divide, with a triumphant Spanish left chastising the right as never before since the political transition of Franco's death, and the right now responding in kind against a Socialist administration whose main initiatives - like the recent legalisation of gay marriage - have been directly aimed at traditional, Catholic sensitivities in Spain.
Is disgust with the political deterioration a reason why the horror of 3/11 itself seems to have vanished so quickly from social consciousness in Spain, specifically, in Madrid? Or is it a sort of collective defensive reflex? The fact is that two months after the bombings a report of the Spanish Society for the Study of Anxiety and Stress determined that 8% of Madrid denizens showed symptoms of "serious depression"; a year later only 2% still suffered them, and now the psychological scars - save for the victims and their families - seem to have practically disappeared.
A very sad post-mortem.
· Victor de la Serna is deputy editor of the Spanish newspaper, El Mundo