The Back Page

THE INQUISITION OF SPAIN

Ignore the accusations: Spaniards voted out of fury, not fear

PAUL WELLS March 29 2004
The Back Page

THE INQUISITION OF SPAIN

Ignore the accusations: Spaniards voted out of fury, not fear

PAUL WELLS March 29 2004

THE INQUISITION OF SPAIN

The Back Page

Ignore the accusations: Spaniards voted out of fury, not fear

PAUL WELLS

BEFORE WE HEAR from one more blowhard about the supposed cowardice of the Spanish people, let us consider what happened between the murders and the vote.

On March 11,10 bombs exploded as commuter trains pulled into three Madrid stations. Two hundred and one people died and 1,500 were injured.

It was hardly obvious who the murderers were. Spain has endured 30 years of bombings —none as lethal as this—by ETA, a Basque separatist group. Less than a month ago, police stopped a truck carrying 500 kg of explosives toward Madrid. That was ETA. But the scale of killing, complexity of the operation, lack of warning, all suggested al-Qaeda.

The prime minister José María Aznar, and his centre-right Popular party had been successful and earned approval in their fight against ETA. Aznar’s partnership with George W. Bush against Islamic terrorism, especially his decision to join the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq to depose Saddam Hussein, was far less popular. Still, Aznar’s party and his successor looked set to win the March 14 election. Journalists and police set to work. Hours after the attack, police turned up an immediate lead that pointed to al-Qaeda: a van containing seven detonators and a tape recording of Koranic verses.

But Aznar’s government worked hard to convince voters and the world there was only one option: ETA. The foreign ministry wired Spain’s diplomats around the world, telling them to “use any opportunity to confirm ETA’s responsibility for these brutal attacks.” When a reporter asked the interior minister whether there might be an al-Qaeda link, he dismissed the notion as “a miserable attempt to disrupt information and confuse people.”

In the newsrooms of El Periodico and El Pais, the publishers rushed to complete front pages with headlines reflecting the horrible uncertainty about the culprits.

Then the prime minister of Spain called each newspaper.

Aznar assured both publishers the murderers were domestic terrorists. They changed their headlines to blame ETA. But as governments everywhere are always amazed to discover, people think for themselves.

As the evidence piled up, Spaniards began to wonder whether their government was telling them the truth. “We’ll learn on Monday who did this,” a pensioner named Jorge Jimenez told the London Sunday Telegraph during the weekend. “By then they’ll have got their votes and another four years.”

On Saturday, the day before the election, police arrested three Moroccans and two Indians. One of Aznar’s ministers announced the arrest but told reporters ETA was still the likely suspect. A public television network cancelled a popular show without warning to broadcast a documentary on ETA terrorism.

How would you react?

By midnight Saturday, in town squares throughout Spain and in front of Aznar’s Popular party offices, crowds of thousands had launched into spontaneous protest, banging pots and pans, demanding the truth. Then they voted, in unprecedented numbers, and the Popular party government fell. Spain had a new prime minister, the Socialist José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero. He wants to bring Spain’s troops home from Iraq unless U.S. control is replaced by United Nations control.

It may be possible to believe Aznar didn’t use mass murder as an excuse to lie to his country. It is easy to understand why countless Spaniards believed he was lying.

We have had quite enough baiting and switching in the last two years. Spanish soldiers joined their allies to go looking for weapons of mass destruction they haven’t found. Their mission was to “disarm” Saddam—a word that appeared nine times in Bush’s 2003 State of the Union address and not once in his 2004 address.

Ninety per cent of Spaniards disapproved of the Iraq war, but they were willing to reelect Aznar’s party until they watched, astonished, as it used the mass murder of their fellow citizens as a pretext for political games.

It has been fashionable here in some circles to call the people of Spain cowards for the way they voted. “Spain voted to capitulate,” David Warren wrote in the Ottawa Citizen. “Screw democracy, we are fighting an enemy of civilization.”

But there was no box on the Spanish ballot you could tick to make al-Qaeda go away. They kill if the Popular party governs Spain. They will kill if the Socialists do. The fight against terrorism will continue. But on March 14 the people of Spain had pressing business to take care of with a government they could no longer trust. Screw democracy? No thank you: they preferred to exercise it.

Spain did not vote in fear but in cold fury. The same fury awaits any government that thinks its opposition to terrorism gives it a licence to lie. lifl

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