After Madrid: a strange sort of solidarity
If people are uncertain as to who they are uniting against, they seem even less sure of what they are standing up for.
The bombings in Madrid have understandably set off a huge wave of human solidarity across Spain and around Europe. Yet in these uncertain times, it is a strange sort of solidarity.
Since nobody knows who planted the bombs, we are not certain who or what we are uniting and demonstrating against. As Brendan O’Neill explains elsewhere on spiked, whoever is responsible, the bombings fit into a new pattern of terror for terror’s sake, where terrorism becomes an end in itself rather than a means to a political goal (see Terror for terror’s sake). The terrorists have no political cause against which we can all take a stand. There is no ‘pro-bombing movement’ to oppose; no sooner had the Basque separatist movement Eta been blamed than the Basque people were staging protests against the Madrid atrocities.
If people are uncertain as to who they are uniting against, they seem even less sure of what they are standing up for. The big rally planned for Madrid on Friday night was promoted by the Spanish government (in itself an unusual idea for a political protest) under the slogans ‘For the victims, For the constitution, For the defeat of terrorism’. These slogans say nothing – exactly who in Spain is against the victims and for the victory of terrorism? The expressions of solidarity look less like a political response to Eta or al-Qaeda than an incoherent outburst of empathy and anger. The pictures of protesters all holding their hands in the air conjure up an image, not so much of resistance as of resignation.
It was striking how swiftly the Spanish government sought to connect with the public mood by declaring three days of public mourning almost immediately after the bombs went off. The current election campaign in Spain has confirmed how difficult it is for politicians to unite people behind them today, and how a traditionally unifying issue – such as the war in Iraq, which José María Aznar’s conservative government backed – can now prove deeply divisive. The tragedy of Madrid offers a rare opportunity for the government to pull people together in an emotional consensus, and speak for the nation as a whole.
The Spanish authorities have decided that next week’s general election will go ahead, but all parties have agreed to suspend campaigning before polling day. In a sense this only confirms the end of politics as we have known it. The politics of competing interests in society, of parties fighting for alternative causes and visions, is being superseded by the politics of personal protests and feelings. The reactions to an event like the Madrid massacre can only accelerate these trends.
Of course there can be nothing wrong with people wanting to show sympathy with the victims of terrorism. But what does it say about our society when empathising with the murdered and the maimed becomes the focus of politics and public life, seemingly the one thing capable of moving people to act together? It is a poor advert for our community or social cohesion that it should take such a tragedy to invoke any public sense of solidarity.
Whoever bombed Madrid, their actions demonstrate the brutal vacuity of the new terrorism, a deadly but empty bombshell hollowed out of any meaning. If it was somebody connected to Eta, then it was not the Eta of old – a traditional movement which used violence for political ends, not as an end in itself.
As for al-Qaeda, as we have pointed out before on spiked, some top terrorism experts agree that it is not really a political movement at all, but more of a ‘brand’ or badge of convenience that can be adopted by any small terrorist group with a grievance and a will to strike fear into the heart of the West (see Does al-Qaeda exist?, by Brendan O’Neill). These are groups with no clear cause or conscience, willing to create something like the carnage in Madrid as a grisly but futile gesture. The fact that bin Laden’s avowed aims include avenging Christian Spain’s defeat of the Muslim Moors 500 years ago only confirms the emptiness of al-Qaeda.
But if the terrorists’ actions reveal their brutal vacuity, perhaps our confused reactions betray the hole at the heart of our own societies. Solidarity with the victims is not enough to provide a sense of purpose. Instead of becoming fixated with the threat from a relative handful of terrorists, we would do better to focus on sorting out what ideas and values the rest of us wish to uphold. The more certain we are of what we stand for, the better equipped society will be to cope with bombs and bombers.
The New Labour government is now pointing to Madrid as ‘proof’ that those of us who protest about governments exaggerating the threat from terrorism are wrong. Of course terrorists can always stage a spectacular attack. Where Blair and co exaggerate the threat is in describing these attacks as a threat to the British and Western way of life – part of a final ‘Armageddon’-scale battle between Good and Evil, as the prime minister put it last week. But while bombers can blow up trains, they cannot bring down civilisations – those tend to crumble from within. The best lasting memorial to the dead of Madrid will be to get on with life.
Mick Hume is editor of spiked.
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