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The voices of the silenced

There has never been a time like this in Madrid.
Throughout Thursday 11 March, a silence reigned over the Spanish capital, long renowned as the most vibrant city in Europe. In part because of the devastating bombings which had caused it, but also because this is a city with a joyous disregard for noise, the quietness of this day was profoundly unsettling. Only in Madrid could silence be a violation.

Prior to the war in Iraq, daily street marches of up to a million people took place long after they had dwindled elsewhere in the world. On a cold March night in 2003, we joined almost the entire population of Madrid, banging our pots and pans in protest. It was a typically noisy Spanish way of saying that other people’s freedom was as important as their own.

But on Thursday 11 March, the silence was broken only by the sirens of emergency vehicles and the sound of circling helicopters. As they laid out the bodies alongside the tracks at Madrid’s Atocha station, emergency workers stood in anguish, trying to decide whether to answer the ringing mobile phones of the dead. At the makeshift morgue on the outskirts of the city, an emotion-filled voice read out over a loudspeaker the names, one by one, of those who had died, whereupon waiting families, finally knowing the worst, shuffled up the stairs and into the nightmare of identifying the body parts of their loved ones.

And then there was the sound of a million mobile phones, as Madrileños overloaded mobile networks trying frantically to track down family and friends. After a desperate hour or more spent trying to reach my wife’s family—we knew that her father and sister had been close-by when the bombings took place—I finally got through. Suddenly, I found myself unable to speak.

Leonardo, a Madrileño friend, told me simply: ‘I have never seen Madrid like this. This is a very special silence.’

By Friday 12 March, the silence had given way to the sounds of a defiant city. At midday, the demonstrations in support of the victims and against terrorism had already begun, despite not being scheduled to commence until 7pm. By early evening, central Madrid was filled with close to 2.3 million people (around 75 per cent of the city’s population). Across Spain, some 11 million people (more than a quarter of the entire country) marched in solidarity. The crowds on the streets were not restricted to young Spaniards who regularly champion causes in public demonstrations. Young and old, lifetime Madrileños and newly arrived immigrants all marched or stood silently in the rain.

And every one of us had an uncontrollable desire to weep.

Alongside the very public expressions of grief, there was a palpable sense of anger. Cries started by a small group in the centre soon rang out across the mass of people: ‘Asesinos!’ (assassins), ‘Hijos de Puta!’ (sons of bitches), ‘Cobardes!’ (cowards), ‘Esa gente era inocente’ (these people were innocent).

Although the crowds had already begun to doubt the government’s premature assertions that ETA was responsible, some demonstrators needed an identifiable target. Others didn’t care who had committed the atrocities, chanting simply ‘ETA o al Qaeda, son la misma mierda’ (ETA or al Qaeda, it’s the same shit).

This was an anger like no other, an expression of outrage as vehement as it was without need of retribution. This anger was best expressed in the universal chant: ‘Estas son nuestras manos, asi como luchamos’ (these are our hands, this is how we fight), accompanied by thousands upon thousands of outstretched palms.

Nor was it a crowd which needed scapegoats. Placards carried by the young and the militant said, ‘Vascos si, ETA no!’ (Basques yes, ETA no). Just prior to the demonstration, the government announced that all illegal immigrants who had been injured, or the families of the dead, were to be immediately granted residence without question; the most popular thing that the government had done in years.

On through the rain we marched, bounced (a very Spanish form of protest) or trudged solemnly, past the wrought-iron balconies draped with Spanish flags, each tied with a black ribbon, weeping at all that had been lost, carried along by the pride in a nation. Above it all could be heard the cries of ‘no estamos todos, faltan 200’ (we are not everyone, we are missing 200), or ‘Se nota, se siente, Madrid está
presente’ (you can see it, you can feel it, Madrid is here).

Everyone was trying to call friends in the crowd, this time not to know whether they were alive but instead to share this very special moment of life. Few succeeded and few cared because there was a sense of belonging; a sense that perhaps this night was the first real victory in the war against terror. 

It took almost three hours to travel the 3km from Plaza de Colon to Atocha station. When this grieving crowd—whose march had taken on the quality of a pilgrimage—reached its destination close to where the bombs had exploded, we broke into spontaneous rounds of applause. And before the haunting silence of the Madrileños again took hold, there was one last cry: ‘ibamos todos en ese tren’ (we were all on that train).

Just two days after these demonstrations, the Spanish people sent shockwaves around the world by throwing out the conservative Partido Popular (PP) of José María Aznar and his hand-picked successor, Mariano Rajoy, in favour of the socialist Partido Socialista Obrero Español (PSOE) of José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero.

Within days a wave of criticism was unleashed in the international media. In the aftermath of 11 September 2001, there was dismay among Americans at how quickly worldwide sympathy for their traumatised nation had evaporated. Most galling was the extent to which the Americans ‘themselves’ were being blamed for their own tragedy. Barely a week after more than 200 people were killed in Madrid, the Spanish people could be forgiven for feeling similarly abandoned.

Some of the most vehement criticism has come from New York itself. Two days after the Spanish election, the editorial of the New York Post talked of Spain’s ‘abject appeasement of terrorists’, before concluding: ‘The plain fact is that the Spanish electorate displayed craven cowardice by electing the Socialists.’

The same day, Richard Schwartz, writing in New York’s Daily News, discussed the response of New Yorkers to the Spanish elections in the following terms: ‘they believe that saying “no” to terror is paramount. From this side of the Atlantic, it looked like Spain said “yes”. They gave in.’

Such an opinion was not restricted to the tabloid press. David Brooks, writing in The New York Times, claimed that Spaniards had elected a government ‘whose policies are more to al Qaeda’s liking’. Thomas Friedman, in the same newspaper, attributed the result to ‘a twitch of appeasement’. The Washington Post editorial similarly argued that the ‘danger is that Europe’s reaction to a war that has now reached its soil will be retreat and appeasement rather than strengthened resolve’.

It is difficult to imagine a more insensitive response to the grief of Madrileños, just days after the city had been plunged into mourning. More than that, to accuse the Spanish people of ‘appeasement’ (a word forever burdened with associations to Hitler’s Third Reich) and ‘craven cowardice’ is at once deeply insulting and highly dangerous.

This is a country that, long before the events of 11 September 2001, has been accustomed to living under the shadow of terrorist threats. The Basque separatist group ETA has for decades waged a campaign of violence in which more than 800 Spaniards have died. In recent years, Spain has been at the forefront of the European fight against al Qaeda, having arrested dozens of alleged al Qaeda operatives. This is also a country where dictatorship is a recent 30-year-old memory. To talk of craven cowardice for a people who have suffered from, and fought against terror long before the fight became popular, demonstrates extraordinary ignorance for the Spanish historical context, let alone the events of the past week.

When Spain voted for a change in government, they did not vote for terrorism. They voted against a government which had betrayed the trust of the Spanish people.

The PP government of President José María Aznar was one of the strongest supporters of the war in Iraq, despite the opposition of 90 per cent of the Spanish population. At the height of the anti-war demonstrations in early 2003, Aznar, who is known almost universally in Spain as el-bigote (the moustache), became a figure of fun, including the devastating graffiti epitaph to a waning political career: ‘The new intern at the White House has a moustache.’ In spite of this, the government remained ahead in opinion polls, riding a wave of economic prosperity that has transformed Spain into one of the most dynamic economies in Europe.

Less than 12 hours after the bombings, Spanish investigators were said to be ’99 per cent certain’ that the bombings were the work of al Qaeda. Yet, as the evidence mounted to the contrary, Spain’s Foreign Minister, Ana Palacio, instructed Spain’s diplomatic missions abroad to assert publicly that ETA, and ETA alone, was responsible for the attacks:

You should use all opportunities available to you to confirm that ETA was the author of these brutal attacks, helping to dispel any kind of doubt some interested parties might try to foster over the responsibility of these attacks. If you deem it appropriate, you can explain these facts to the media.

President Aznar telephoned all major news organisations to assert that ‘the terrorist group that is so well-known in our country’ was responsible. The Interior Ministry stuck to the same line, denying contrary evidence from intelligence services. When the video in which an alleged al Qaeda military spokesman claimed responsibility for the bombings was discovered, the government-controlled television channel, TV España, was the only station not to broadcast the announcement live. The same station had incurred the wrath of Spaniards last year for inadequate coverage of the marches against the government.
Increasingly, the government was seen as evasive and authoritarian. Evidence of government deception and political manipulation at a time of national mourning (something which Thomas Friedman dismissed as ‘fine print’) re-awakened opposition to a government which had so blithely dismissed public opinion in pursuing the war in Iraq. In all likelihood, these factors decided the election.

It remains unclear just how many Spaniards changed their voting intentions as a result of the attacks. Unnamed sources within the two major parties conceded that private polling on the night of 10 March showed that the election was too close to call and that the PP and the PSOE were in a statistical dead heat.

Many of the pre-March 11 opinion polls also suggested that a significant proportion of Spaniards were not planning to vote. By the night of 14 March, more than 76 per cent of eligible Spanish voters had cast their ballots. More people than ever before, particularly young Spaniards, had been drawn into the democratic process.
Far from being seen as a reassuring victory for democracy at a time of national tragedy, however, the election results were condemned in international circles for having rewarded al Qaeda. It was as if the Spanish people had somehow voted for those who had killed their families and friends, as if the war on terror and the war in Iraq were the same thing.

The process of al Qaeda influencing political outcomes is not a phenomenon which began with the Spanish election. Whether we admit it or not, al Qaeda has been determining government policy since September 11. Some of those policies have been preventative, but just as many have been reactionary. The war in Iraq, has been like a gift to al Qaeda, harnessing anti-Western sentiment and providing a security vacuum from which terrorists can operate.

Some countries respond to terrorist acts on their own soil by going to war. Others respond by demanding peace. To accuse the Spanish people of appeasement for choosing the latter is to suggest that the war on terror demands some abnegation of political choice. Implicit in this view is the assumption that a people can only be said to be fighting terrorism if they support a policy opposed by 90 per cent of the population, or if they allow a government which had perpetrated a grave act of betrayal to escape punishment. These assumptions provide evidence of just how much damage has been done to democracy in the name of the war on terror.

Anthony Ham lives in Madrid and is a freelance writer.



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