Today's Papers

Mourning in Madrid

Everyone leads with yesterday’s devastating terrorist attack in Madrid, which killed at least 198 and wounded more than 1,400 rush-hour commuters only three days before Spain’s national elections. Explosive-laden backpacks tore open commuter trains in 10 nearly simultaneous blasts, turning the city’s downtown into a morgue and echoing the brutal choreography the Sept. 11 attack on the United States. “March 11 now has its place in the history of infamy,” Spanish Prime Minister José María Aznar announced in the most widely used quote.

The leads in the Washington Post and USA Today—and separate front-page whodunit pieces in the Los Angeles Times and New York Times—report that the Spanish government was quick to blame Basque separatist group ETA, and spontaneous demonstrations of mourning across Spain included denunciations of the group. Later in the day, however, investigators acknowledged that al-Qaida might be responsible, after police discovered a van containing detonators and audiotapes of Koran passages near a train station where three of the bombed trains had originated.

The leads in the NYT and LAT—and an accompanying fronter in the WP—paint a scene awash in disturbing details and dark numbers: 3 stations, 4 trains, 10 bombs, 15 minutes, 100 hearses. The NYT quotes one witness who described, “ribs, brains all over,” and the LAT spoke with a woman who sobbed, “So much blood, so much blood. And so many blankets, all covering the bodies. It was Dantesque.” After the blasts, people frantically tried to call loved ones. “On many bodies, we could hear the person’s mobile phones ringing as we carted them away,” one doctor said in the Post’s scene piece, which evokes 9/11 in its headline. “It’s even the same date, the 11th,” an ambulance driver notes in the article’s opener. “It’s really amazing.”

The Wall Street Journal’s front-page Madrid catch-all (subscription required) and the LAT both provide the most detailed analyses of who might have pulled off such an attack, saying that despite the discovery of the Koranic cassettes, the Spanish government is still pretty sure that the secular separatist group is to blame. According to the LAT, the cassettes of the Koran are widely available and could have been planted by the ETA. Moreover, the group has been linked to recent plots, at least one of which involved backpacks similar to those used yesterday. “They’ve tried to blow up trains in Madrid three times now in the past months,” the Aznar’s spokesman said in the WSJ. “And al-Qaida is going to try the fourth time? And succeed three days before the elections?”

But the WSJ and NYT both quote anonymous sources, described as a “senior” Spanish “antiterrorism” officials, who are skeptical of the official line (which the WSJ notes will most likely seal victory for Aznar’s hand-picked conservative successor, who had made an issue of stamping out the ETA and was already expected to win). Apparently, there was no signature warning phoned in before the attack, and the Marxist-influenced ETA has in the past been reluctant to strike working-class people, focusing instead on politicians. USAT notes that the attack took place exactly two-and-a-half years after Sept. 11. “The problem is that ETA has never taken a step of this magnitude before. This would be off the charts for them,” said the NYT’s source, who has followed ETA for more than 10 years.

Still, the LAT suggests that there has been a change in ETA—whose initials stand for “Basque Homeland and Liberty” in the Basque language—as the more philosophical old guard leaders have been captured and replaced. “This is a generation … born and raised in democracy, yet they are the most radical of all,” one Spanish law-enforcement source said of the younger militants. “And basically [they are] street thugs, without ideology, really brain-dead.”

The papers all mention that an al-Qaida offshoot claimed responsibility for the attack in an e-mail to an Arab-language newspaper in London, but it turns out the group has attribution standards worthy of Jayson Blair and was probably not involved. According to LAT’s lead, the group fires off e-mails claiming responsibility for pretty much everything, including, for instance, last year’s blackout in the U.S. and Canada.

Regardless of who is responsible, the papers note that many people shuddered at the possibility the Madrid method could be exported. The Dow plummeted 168.51 points on the news, and the WSJ follows up with a Page One piece on just how soft the world’s rail targets indeed are (sub. req.). New York City’s commuter rail agency, for example, initially considered screening passengers in the wake of 9/11 but gave up. “It would bog the system down to the point it doesn’t work,” a spokesman said.

Meanwhile, Knight Ridder—which has been doing some great investigative reporting lately—has another juicy scoop today. According to an e-mail leaked to KR, the top expert on Medicare costs was warned he would be fired if he’d revealed that the Bush administration’s Medicare reform package would cost $100 billion more than advertised to Congress. “I’m perhaps no longer in grave danger of being fired,” the expert wrote at the time, “but there remains a strong likelihood that I will have to resign in protest of the withholding of important technical information from key policy makers for political reasons.” One quibble: Why can’t we read the whole e-mail?

California’s high court put a halt to same-sex marriages in San Francisco yesterday, according to off-leads in the LAT and WP, a NYT fronter, and a story USAT reefers. The decision will let the 4,161 licenses that have already been issued stand—at least for now. But the ruling is a defeat for same-sex marriage advocates, because the court indicated it would not consider arguments on the constitutionality of the statewide ban when it hears the full case in the spring.

“I’m delighted that someone has finally taken action to stop the anarchy that is being perpetrated in San Francisco,” said the state senator who initially sponsored the same-sex marriage ban. According to the LAT, however, the senator refused to comment on his son, who married another man on Tuesday.

Just a few hours before the Calif. court’s decision, President Bush reiterated his support for a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage during a little-reported satellite address to the yearly convention of the National Association of Evangelicals. According to a piece inside the NYT, the NAE represents 45,000 evangelical congregations with 30 million members. Apparently those numbers—along with the ringing endorsement of a president who is counting on his conservative base to get him reelected—have made the group anything but shy. A slogan on the back of the convention program reads, “What Can 30 Million Evangelicals Do For America? Anything We Want.”