International Papers

Europe’s 9/11

Madrid, the morning after.

An “execrable act of barbarity and brutality”

“A modern version of the gruesome wartime images painted by Goya” is how Britain’s Guardian described the scenes of carnage that followed the more or less simultaneous explosion of 10 bombs on four Madrid-bound commuter trains just before 8 a.m. Thursday, killing 199 and injuring 1,463. The editorial continued: “Events such as yesterday’s in Madrid define our age and annotate its calendar. Events like September 11 in New York and Washington—and now March 11 in Madrid.” In an echo of the international response to Sept. 11, the Barcelona daily La Vanguardia ran an op-ed titled“We are all Madrileños.”

The conservative Spanish daily ABC declared: “We are at war. It is a world war between democracy and its enemies, and these enemies … are called Islamic fundamentalism, ethnic nationalism, neo-Stalinism, neo-fascism, and the new anti-Semitism.” The Basque paper El Correo said, “Yesterday’s date has been recorded in Spaniards’ collective memory and in the pages of the history of the most execrable acts of barbarity and brutality.”

Spanish Prime Minister José María Aznar declared three days of national mourning, and political parties ceased campaigning three days before Sunday’s general election. On Friday evening, millions of Spaniards gathered in cities around the country to express their solidarity with the bereaved and injured and their opposition to terrorism. Symbols of sympathy and outrage were visible everywhere: Television stations placed a Spanish flag with a black ribbon in the center at the corner of their screens; newspapers with Web sites usually available to subscribers only were accessible to all; film director Pedro Almodóvar postponed the world premiere of his new movie.

Immediately after the blasts, the Spanish government and just about every Spanish newspaper were quick to blame the Basque separatist group ETA, although the method, scale, and target of the attacks did not fit the 30-year-old organization’s pattern. (ETA denied responsibility for the bombings in calls to Basque media outlets Friday.) By Thursday night, police found evidence that suggested the attacks may be the work of an Islamist terror cell. (An Islamist group claimed responsibility in a letter to the London-based Arabic-language newspaper Al-Quds Al-Arabi, but the group has a history of taking credit for events it had no connection with)

Whoever was responsible, everyone agreed the Madrid attack represented an escalation of political violence. Britain’s Daily Telegraph noted, “For any group of national malcontents or international zealots to make an impression on the public consciousness—and get a suitably spectacular set of headlines—it must now stage an incident of massive proportions. As George W Bush and Tony Blair have claimed, September 11 truly did change the world. It forced all terrorism to become organised and fiercely professional. We are now only as safe as we are vigilant.”

France’s Le Monde headlined its editorial, “European Tragedy,” declaring, “It is Europe and democracy that were attacked Thursday … in Madrid. It’s the European Union that was assaulted in one of its capitals.” The paper noted that “terrorism on a grand scale” has now arrived in Europe; “the people who perpetrated this attack thought about thousands of deaths, the wanted thousands of deaths. … There is no cause, no context, no so-called political objective that justifies this kind of terrorism.” Le Figaro’s editorial, headlined “Aider L’Espagne,” echoing a famous slogan from the Spanish Civil War, also stressed the need for Pan-European cooperation: “Everyone must mobilize against terrorism, no matter where it comes from.”

Some papers couldn’t resist a dig. Britain’s Independent praised “the dignity and sense” of Aznar’s response, but the editorial landed a sucker punch on the Bush administration: “[Aznar] was not panicked into unreasoned anti-terrorist rhetoric of the sort that so often reaches us from across the Atlantic.” Russia’s Izvestiya said the bombings had changed Europe: “The terrorists dispelled her illusions, made her less naive, less good-natured.” But the paper added that it hoped Europeans would now be less supercilious. “What are European politicians, MPs, rights activists, and journalists going to do after March 11? Will they, for instance, continue to demand that Moscow sit down at the negotiating table with those who organized the invasion of Dagestan and the explosions in Russian towns? Or will they finally try to put themselves in our place?” (Translation courtesy of BBC Monitoring.)

Several commentators stressed the importance of Sunday’s elections. The Financial Times noted that if anything, “the terrorist attacks are likely to bolster support for the government and Mr Aznar’s successor, Mariano Rajoy. … The [Popular Party] is perceived to be tougher on terrorism than the rival Socialist party.” An op-ed in El País encouraged citizens to “vote the way they had decided [the day before the attack]. ETA can’t change a single vote.” The Catalan paper El Periódico rallied the voters: “Against fascism and guns [we need] unity and active participation in every aspects of … democracy: in the streets, in all the debates and forums, at the polls Sunday, and in parliament, always.” ABC urged, “Everyone to the voting booth, for liberty. … In the face of suffering and sadness, the legislative elections will be the great fiesta of Spanish democracy; a celebration of life.”