International Papers

Osama at the Spanish Polls

Is Bin Laden responsible for the Popular Party’s ouster?

On Friday, this column noted that the Spanish daily El País had urged citizens to vote the way they had planned to vote before Thursday’s Madrid bombings claimed 200 lives. “ETA can’t change a single vote,” the paper declared. In one sense, El País got it right: Indications are that ETA did not perpetrate the attacks, despite the outgoing government’s ill-advised readiness to allow the Basque separatists to be the prime suspect in the lead-up to yesterday’s election. But the bigger story isn’t who did not affect the election outcome; it’s who did. Newspapers throughout Europe and around the world were quick to note today that al-Qaida, which has been linked tentatively to the sophisticated attacks, caused the ruling Popular Party’s lead in the polls to disintegrate, paving the way for a Socialist victory that had seemed unlikely as recently as last Wednesday.

El País’ editorial today, titled “On Lying,” slammed the outgoing government of Prime Minister José María Aznar for creating a “sense of manipulation and deception” among the public in the aftermath of Thursday’s attacks. It said “the offensive use of the … war on terror to justify just about any policy … caused those in power to lose it yesterday.”

The editorial in Spain’s ABC left no doubt as to what changed the course of the election. “In the end, the debate over manifestos, the merits of the personalities involved, the state of the parties, was all substituted by a vote that let off steam over the March 11 attacks and castigated the government,” the paper said. (Spanish translations courtesy of the Guardian.)

A headline in the mass-circulation German tabloid Bild, accompanied by a portrait of Osama Bin Laden, left little room for speculation about the Madrid attack’s perpetrator: “Al-Qaida: The bloody business of terror.”

Bild warned Germans against presuming that their country would not become a target of Islamic terror just because it had not supported the war in Iraq. Only a dreamer could believe that, it said, noting that Islamic terrorists are waging a war against all the West, not just against specific countries. This logic was echoed by the Nürnberger Nachrichten, which said the terrorists see their acts as reprisal for Western crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan. While Germany is not involved in Iraq, it has taken a role in Afghanistan, so it cannot avoid being a potential target. Therefore, the paper called for the European Union to coordinate all anti-terror efforts among member states. (English summaries courtesy of Deutsche Welle.)

That call was echoed across Europe. Despite France’s opposition to the war in Iraq, Libération warned that “France would be very wrong to believe it is safe from the trains of death.” The Swiss Le Temps warned that the victorious Spanish Socialists face a daunting challenge: The “nauseating controversy” that enmeshed the final days of the election campaign could lead to “a crisis with unpredictable consequences, a moral, political, and institutional crisis.” (French-language translations courtesy of BBC Monitoring.)

While many Europeans focused on the election results and the shock of mega-terror on the continent, a comment in an Israeli newspaper, reflecting a common sentiment in a country that lost 10 people in its latest suicide bombing over the weekend, stirred some crossfire between two British papers.

A columnist in Israel’s largest-circulation tabloid, Yediot Ahronot, wrote, “Welcome to the real world.” Until now, he said, “Western Europe thought it was immune.” No longer.

The Guardian took umbrage at the Israeli column, asking in a weekend editorial, “Which real world? The world in which neighborhoods are razed, water supplies cut off, children shot, in thinly disguised acts of collective retribution? Or is it the world in which George Bush uses actors to portray New York firefighters raising the American flag at Ground Zero in a £2.5m television ad campaign for his forthcoming election? … Are those who perpetrated the commuter train bombings to be hunted down and smoked out of their lairs, and if they were, are we confident that we would prevent the next attack, and the one after that?

“We need to get beyond the them and us, the good guys and the bad guys, and seek a genuinely collective response,” the editorial concluded. “Europe should seize the moment that America failed to grasp.”

The Sunday Telegraph responded to the Guardian harshly, calling the paper’s argument “an object lesson in how not to tackle this global threat. … The idea that we should try to appease the terrorists is wrong in every respect. … As the murderous attacks in New York, Washington, Bali, Kenya and Iraq have shown, it is not just the inhabitants of Europe, but those the world over, who are exposed to the terrorists’ technology of death.”

The paper noted that too many Westerners miss the point of Islamic terror. “They wish to destroy the whole basis of Western society—secular democracy, individual liberty, equality before the law, toleration, and pluralism—and replace it with a theocracy based on a perverted and dogmatic interpretation of the Koran. That is why the suggestion that we should try to negotiate with such terrorists is so fatuous: there is nothing whatever to negotiate about.”