Spain has suffered two jihadist terror attacks over the last 13 years. In March 2004, bombs planted on trains in Madrid killed 191 people and in the days that followed, hundreds of thousands of Spaniards turned out onto the streets to express their condemnation of the attack and solidarity for the victims. Then, as it emerged that the government of José María Aznar had erroneously told the country that Eta had been responsible, the mood changed. Aznar’s desperate insistence that it was not Al-Qaeda (and therefore nothing to do with Spain’s presence in Iraq) failed to convince voters, who delivered a shock result in the general election three days after the attack, putting the Socialist José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero in power.
Many voters on the right would never accept that result as legitimate. Egged on by certain media (especially El Mundo) and politicians in Aznar’s Partido Popular (PP), the more gullible and conspiracy minded continued to believe that Eta – and even elements of the Spanish state or Socialist Party – had been involved in plotting the attack.
I would not wish on any country the poisonous atmosphere that Spain saw in the following months, during which the legitimacy of the new government was constantly undermined and relatives of some of those killed in the attack were insulted in the street for not accepting the cranks’ version of events.
The country has changed a great deal since then, in many ways for the better, and the so-called “11-M” conspiracy has more or less evaporated. Thankfully, we have not seen the same kind of collective madness in the wake of the Ramblas and Cambrils attacks of August 17-18.
However, other schisms have become apparent in recent days.
On the train from Madrid to Barcelona on August 18th, I bumped into a Catalan congresswoman from the Socialist Party and I asked her if she thought the recent attacks would have any effect on Catalonia’s plans to stage an illegal referendum on independence from Spain on October 1. The gist of her response was that it wouldn’t and that very soon, Spanish politics would be back to normal.
I agreed, but I think neither of us anticipated what followed: an impressive show of unity, followed by confusion and plenty of bile.
That unity was the gathering of politicians and King Felipe along with thousands of others in Barcelona’s Plaça de Catalunya for a minute’s silence, the day after the van attack in the city. The chants of “No tinc por” (“I’m not afraid”) that followed were deeply moving and as businesses opened up again that day and tourists once again wandered the Ramblas en masse, it seemed that this was the best kind of response to a senseless act.
But barely had the candles been lit on the Ramblas’s improvised shrines to the victims (see photo above) than things started to sour.
Much of that curdling has been played out in the media. An ill-judged editorial in El País needlessly dragged the Catalan independence issue into the Barcelona attack fallout, lamenting the “flagrant breaking of laws, the games of deceit… and political opportunism” of the northeastern region’s government.
Meanwhile, a blame game has ensued, with many in the media and security forces apparently determined to highlight the failure of the Catalan police, the Mossos d’Esquadra, to heed concerns which had apparently informally been expressed by Belgian authorities about the imam at the centre of the plot, Abdelbaki Es Satty.
The Mossos’s hogging of the headlines after shooting several of the terrorists appears to have bothered some in Madrid, as does the fact that the Catalan police chief Josep Lluís Trapero, and the regional premier, Carles Puigdemont, offered updates on the investigation in Catalan rather than Spanish.
“Is it possible to offer a greater level of stupidity, meanness and provincialism (not to say necrophilia)?” fumed Pedro Pitarch, a retired lieutenant general, of a televised appearance by Puigdemont after the attacks, on his blog.
Meanwhile, others have been quick to blame Barcelona’s mayor, Ada Colau, for the attack, for not having installed bollards at the top of the Ramblas (Alcorcón mayor David Pérez, of the PP, accused her of “paving the way” for the terrorists).
Such huffing and puffing from is perhaps inevitable after a tragedy of this kind. But the political context for all this is unprecedented, lending an extra layer of tension: the October 1 independence referendum is the culmination of half a decade of political crisis and deep uncertainty, undoubtedly fuelling much of the unnecessary behaviour of recent days on both “sides” of the territorial argument. It helps explain, for example, the determination of some supporters of independence to trumpet the rather unconvincing argument that their region’s response to the attack is proof in itself that they are ready to form a new state.
One fiercely pro-independence man I met on the Ramblas on August 18th told me that “it’s not the time to bring out the flags” because displays of nationalism at that moment would distract attention from the victims and he had no problem with the fact that the Spanish prime minister and king were in the city. But many others saw things differently, and the pro-independence estelada was a common feature of the anti-terror march a week later in Barcelona, as were boos and whistles for Rajoy and King Felipe (justified, supposedly, by the “hypocrisy” of a Spanish state that does business with Saudi Arabia).
What would Javier Martínez, the father of the three-year-old boy Xavi who was killed on the Ramblas, think of all this? Amid the flag-waving, political jockeying and finger-pointing he embraced an imam in the town of Rubí just days after losing his son in the attack in what has to be the ultimate act of unity and defiance.
So often in the wake of an attack like this we are told that we have to make sure our lives are not overly disrupted, because “that’s what the terrorists want”. Yes, but they also want us divided and unsure of who our allies are. In the last few days we have not seen the hateful delirium that gripped Spain in the spring of 2004. But the divisions are nonetheless there and everyone – politicians, police, retired military, newspaper editors, bloggers, unionists and separatists – would do well to step back from their agenda and glance at the bigger picture.