Scraps over terrorism

A journalist living in Spain wearies of politicians' post-Madrid finger-pointing.

Robert Latona

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Why did Irene Vila go to Atocha Station? Because she needed spare parts.

You don’t get it. That’s because you’re not Spanish and so are unlikely to recall that Irene Vila was the 13-year-old whose legs were blown off in a 1991 bomb attack by Basque ETA terrorists. However, no local background is required to recall that Madrid’s central Atocha terminus was the main target of the 11 March 2004 terror train bombings that killed 191 people.

Sick humour is a universal phenomenon, though it has to be admitted the Spanish do have a way with such things. Perhaps this indicates the extent to which people who ought to know better have assimilated major social trauma into the discourse of everyday affairs by rendering it banal and trivial. It is no coincidence that degrading the horror of what happened also helps to legitimise it for purposes of partisan political head-bashing.

It just wasn’t enough to slavishly copy the 9/11 mourning down to the last ritualistic detail: thumbnail obituaries in the Madrid press, candlelight ceremonies and compulsive flower-laying. Spain, like most other European countries, is dealing with its mass-murdering Islamic nutcase problem in its own culturally specific fashion, doing everything short of admitting that the threat hasn’t gone away.

Consider how the public snapped up tickets for the lucrative Christmas lottery evoking the date on which the atrocity occurred. Those numbered 11304 sold out quickly and were sought after from scalpers, having overtaken the numerological synthesis of Crown Prince Felipe’s wedding day as a good luck talisman.

Lucky lotteries and unfunny jokes to one side, what can Spaniards expect by way of solace and solutions from their leaders? Sadly, over nine months into the aftermath, the best the políticos have been able to manage is to foul the air with reciprocal volleys of daft conspiracy theories. What was supposed to be a serious parliamentary inquiry has turned into a venue for carnival grandstanding and name-calling of the worst sort, lagging miles behind the ongoing police investigation in bringing to light relevant details of how the crimes were planned and perpetrated.

The nadir came at the end of 2004 when current prime minister José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, and his predecessor Jose Maria Aznar, each used their appearance in parliament as a platform for accusing of the other of deliberate malfeasance, as they responded to loaded questions fed from their respective benches.

Zapatero is holding fast to the line his tacticians devised immediately after the attack: that Aznar had brought down the wrath of the jihadists on Spain for aligning with Bush and Blair against Saddam Hussein and sending Spanish forces to Iraq. Three days after the attacks, the Socialists pulled off their electoral upset, ousting Aznar’s centre-right Popular Party.

Zapatero argues that Aznar misled the people by insisting on ETA’s involvement because he feared he would be repudiated at the polls over Iraq. The usually mild-mannered Zapatero went ballistic and personal with accusations of ‘massive lies’ and ‘cowardice and insidious irresponsibility’ against Aznar.

But why would the party that was comfortably ahead by several lengths resort to jiggery-pokery to win an election, a deception that was certain to deflate as soon as contrary evidence surfaced? By the same token, there were good reasons for suspecting ETA. Basque terrorists had made two previous attempts at smuggling huge quantities of explosives into Madrid, as recently as December 2003, having made the strategic decision to carry out indiscriminate attacks on targets unrelated to the security forces or political leadership of the Spanish state. Under interrogation, ETA militants had mentioned Atocha station, the Bernabeu stadium or one of the big department stores as possibilities.

In his 29 November appearance before the lawmakers, Aznar insisted that a link between the bombers and ETA has yet to be ruled out, perhaps in the criminal connections of the two Spanish felons who allegedly supplied the killers with explosives. As far as he is concerned ‘inverting the electoral outcome’ was the aim and not just the byproduct of the massacre. ‘In all sincerity, I simply cannot believe that the organisers of these attacks, the ones who planned the whole thing, chose that particular date by accident…and I don’t think they are to be found in some distant desert or far-away mountains.’

Aznar’s words are seen as lending credibility to the many conspiracy theories in circulation. This being Spain, the perfidious frogs head the list of the usual suspects. The French connection hypothesis argues that the neighbouring country’s secret services either knew or suspected Spain was targeted for something nasty but kept mum to destabilise Aznar, who had been annoying Chirac with vows to block the European Union’s Nice treaty because its power-sharing arrangements were inimical to Spain. Chirac, in fact, was the only European leader who assumed that Zapatero had the election sewed up.

Then there’s the Moroccan lead, though it is based on nothing more substantial than a rather nasty remark made four years ago by that country’s King Mohammed VI, to the effect that Spain was not being realistic in expecting a blanket exemption from terrorists – nor, as he hinted darkly, necessarily deserving one.

Other fingers point to Spain’s own Interior Ministry and security services. This theory is a paranoid’s delight, as its credibility quotient derives from the fact that these institutions were badly compromised under the 1982-1996 Socialist government of Felipe Gonzalez, whose top officials set up the ‘Anti-Terrorist Liberation Groups’ or GAL – also known as the Death Squad that Couldn’t Shoot Straight – in an inept bid to pay back ETA with its own coin.

Under this variant, during the 1996-2004 Aznar era, the Interior Ministry was infested with ‘sleeper cells’ of Gonzalez loyalists that were activated last March not only to ensure a Socialist victory but also to guarantee the pliant Zapatero would issue pardons for senior members of the party old guard, who were convicted for the GAL and other acts of corruption and who have now reached the end of the appeals process.

The trouble with this flurry of invention and invective is that conspiracy theories look like pretty poor stuff when set alongside the account that is gradually emerging from the judicial investigation buttressed with some incisive investigative reporting. This has already brought to light numerous instances of incompetence, complacency, lack of coordination and petty corruption that undermined the network of informers and surveillance of known Islamic radicals. Why didn’t any of the tripwires function?

Just as in the USA (think of the hijackers who went to flying school and told the instructors not to bother with the take-off and landing bits) public indignation is being aroused not by this or that conspiracy theory but by compelling evidence of government ineptitude. Playing the blame game will raise a smokescreen that may serve the short-term interests of both parties but it will only last until the next time the bombs go off.

Robert Latona is a Madrid-based journalist.

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