On Thursday, I missed becoming a statistic by less than fifteen minutes. On Friday, I joined millions marching through the bone-chilling, rainy streets of Madrid in solidarity with those who were not as lucky as I. On Saturday, I spent most of the night banging a black hubcap I found lying in Sol-Madrid’s version of Times Square-with a teaspoon I lifted from a café busy with protesters taking a break from noise-making conciousness-raising that was still going strong when I decided to drag myself to bed around three o’clock in the morning. We were protesting what seemed like the government’s cover-up of facts surrounding Thursday’s horrendous attack, with the egregious aim to maintain their driver’s seat position in Sunday’s national election, which until bombs entered the race, everyone had pretty much decided was over before it even began.
So, it was, as one Spanish friend wrote me in a celebratory text message, “collective catharsis” when last night’s election results rolled in with a surprisingly decisive win for the main opposition party, PSOE (Partido Socialista Obrero Español). On Wednesday, this “regime change” was inconceivable. Mariano Rajoy, hand-picked by President José María Aznar as his presumed successor, had only to keep his hands on the wheel of Partido Popular’s cruise-controlled coast to victory, which many predicted by absolute majority.
On the other hand, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, the leader of PSOE, was looking more and more like Mr. Bean at the Indy 500-stuck in the pits waiting for his inevitable crash. His campaign slogan, “We deserve a better Spain,” sounded weak and uninspired. But Sunday night, after the worst violence in Madrid’s post-civil war history, those words, flying above his red-and-white flag waving supporters packing the street outside PSOE’s headquarters, suddenly rang true. Hundreds of young, previously disenfranchised voters sandwiched between old-style socialists shouted sentiments of the same sort mixed-like the cocktails floating through the estatic crowd-with pointed insults directed at Aznar and TV1, Spain’s conservative national television station, which they felt had failed to accurately report developments in the investigation of the attack.
Leaving PSOE headquarters after midnight, the surrounding sidwalks were littered with the colors of victory, and throughout Madrid-even though Partido Popular won the region-cars were honking as if Real Madrid, Spain’s leading soccer team, had won another world championship. The crisp night air, dry again after raining for two days, seemed somehow cleansed of its heaviness present since 7:39 Thursday morning. I entered a bar where I had been the previous night when it was full of protesters, vocal, yet holding their breath in anxious anticipation. Although a Sunday, and approaching one o’clock in the morning, the place was packed, the music turned up, and it felt like happy hour on Friday night after a long, but productive week at week.
We shall see the results of “regime change” in Spain over the next four years. Zapatero and PSOE have a difficult task ahead of them as they must quickly shift gears from opposition politics to leading a pack of independently-minded parties that have difficulty resolving regional conflicts. In addition, it will be difficult to meet the expectations of the young voters the party attracted, and even more challenging still to walk the thin line between left and center, which is as far as most Spaniards want PSOE to move from Aznar’s center-right policies, especially in the economic arena.
However, on the ever-shifting, international geopolitical stage, the world has just witnessed the birth of a new act. Americans especially should prepare themselves for similar bloody attacks within their borders this fall, not long before going to the polls to vote. The timing of the Madrid attack, just three days before national elections, was clearly meant to send a message to Spanish voters, much stronger, yet not so unlike that of Zapatero’s campaign slogan-with a fundamental variation on who constitutes “we.” The attack worked, probably more effectively than the plotters expected, and is therefore likely to develop into a new strategy by groups seeking to defend themselves from Western violence in the Middle East, while inflicting revenge on particular aggressors.
These sorts of “pre-emptive strikes” may prove, as in Spain, highly advantageous in achieving political goals, while at the same time requiring comparitively little in terms of human or economic cost. Just compare the economic and cultural costs of America’s so-called “War on Terror,” or the death toll and military spending on the “pre-emptive war” and occupation of Iraq with the 11th of March and it is easy to see how the last four days in Madrid may very well mark a new page in the playbook of global power relations.
Of course, influencing election results through the violent intervention of foreign groups is nothing new. The United States government, usually with the help of the CIA, has been doing it consistently for nearly half a century. From the outright murder of Patrice Lumumba in 1961 after he won the first democratic elections in the Congo to the current evidence suggesting that the U.S. has been funding groups in Haiti and Venezuela to overthrow governments antagonistic to Washington’s agenda, the U.S. government has been behind a countless number of terrorist acts. These acts, usually planned and carried out in secret, are usually always hidden from the view of the American public, who often accept outright lies and poor reporting for facts that happen far and away from American daily life.
But this flagrant policy of human rights abuses-affecting domestic politics in order to gain international leverage-developed by the United States during its global ascendancy and executed with precision last week in Madrid by astute improvisers should ignite not more violence, but mass reflection. Spanish voters did just that between Thursday and Sunday. Whether or not there is, indeed, an attack on U.S. soil before the November election, Americans now have eight months to consider the consequences of the Bush administration’s response to September 11th, and a war in Iraq that is now undisputably recognized as having been fought under false premises-even by the administration itself.
Unfortunately for Americans, groups intent on challenging U.S. hegemony in the Middle East will most likely take the lesson of Madrid to heart, if not to the grave: it is much more effective to provide voters with a sampling of their government’s foreign policy before national elections, than to trust citizens of the privileged “first-world” to vote their moral conscience-however open-minded their free, democratic societies claim to be-when the real consequences of unjust wars are only felt by a small minority of military personnel and their families, who, as a voting block, tend to have more conservative leanings than the average voter, anyway.
Tragically, even as Aznar’s loss on Sunday foreshadows Bush’s probable-if more gradual-demise, American citizens and residents-legal or otherwise-guilty or not of voting for a president who lost the popular vote and was appointed President under highly suspicious circumstances by a Supreme Court composed of many judges hand-picked by his father or his father’s mentor will probably suffer retribution for crimes so clearly against humanity. Since I’m planning on returning to the United States in May, I hope I am lucky enough to miss the next bomb-ridden train. I hope that American voters reflect not only on potential attacks in their own country, but also on this attack in Madrid, just a block from my house, and of course, the war and greater foreign policy for which it was carried out.
This will not be easy. Americans are less optimistic that their political system can offer significant change, and vote in fewer numbers than Spaniards whose constitution is only as old as I am, and whose democratic experience was just getting started as the United States was celebrating its 200th anniversary. American citizens are also farther from mass death, having fought major wars on foreign, not domestic soil during this and the last century. Add a quirky frontier mentality, and ocean-insulated Americans are, in general, a more fearful bunch, and thus easier to manipulate than their European cohorts.
Unfortunately, Karl Rove, Dick Cheny and the other spin doctors of the current Republican regime are master fear-mongers. They are likely to persuade voters to do anything but reflect on the events in far-away Spain or Iraq or Haiti for that matter. Proof of this electoral strategy is already evident. As El Pais, Spain’s leading newspaper reported in today’s election edition, Colin Powell was still playing the ETA card on ABC and FOX while saying that what occurred in Madrid only “confirms that there is a war on terror that must be fought.” On NBC, Condeleezza Rice also held the party line that broke Aznar’s hold on his country, saying that “what happened is another example of how far these assasins will go to try to intimidate people.”
Accepting this type of unreflective, unilateral reasoning only serves as a temporary band-aid for growing fears: for the Bush administration, fear of losing the election and their chance to chart the next half century of American direction; for the rest of the American public, it is fear of another September 11th. Neither fear will disappear by implementing and supporting the very same foreign policy that provoked the attack in Madrid, if not those of New York and Washington as well. And, as we have painfully witnessed in Madrid, band-aids do not serve well the wounds of bombs designed to kill.
SCOTT BOEHM is a freelance writer and English language teacher living in Madrid. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.