Terror’s Spanish Legacy

Mr. Kaminski is editor The Wall Street Journal Europe’s editorial page (The Wall Street Journal, 11/03/07):

Shrouded in white canvas, the memorial commemorating the March 11 terrorists attacks will be unveiled outside Atocha rail station here tomorrow, the third anniversary. Though the exact design is secret, the high glass structure is said to reflect light at different angles in tasteful tribute to the 191 lives extinguished that day.

It will be out of place in Spain. The aftermath of 11M–once eme, as that day is known in Spanish–has been anything but tasteful. If America unified following 9/11, Spain split along sharply sectarian lines within hours of the commuter-train bombings. An election swung from the ruling and favored center-right Popular Party, whose support for the Iraq war the left quickly blamed for inviting terror, lost to the anti-American Socialists. The Islamist architects couldn’t have hoped for a better result in striking three days before polling day. But those traumatic events have been followed by others, shifting the course of Spanish history in ways no one then imagined possible.

The emotional legacy of 11M could be better appreciated a day before today’s sober ceremony. An angry million or more were expected to march yesterday in Madrid against the sitting government’s soft stance toward domestic terrorism. A fortnight ago, Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero let a Basque ETA terrorist serve out his reduced sentenced at home. José Ingnacio De Juana Chaos, convicted in the murder of 25 innocent people, had been on hunger strike.

His release on “humanitarian grounds” was, to critics, only the latest Zapatero outrage. The government last year opened “peace talks” with ETA; the prime minister holds out hope for a settlement with the terror group even after ETA ended its “cease-fire” and blew up a parking garage at Madrid airport in late December, killing two. Previous Prime Minister José María Aznar, who didn’t run for re-election after completing two terms, says the Zapatero government did the Madrid bombers’ bidding by immediately yanking Spanish troops from Iraq upon taking office, and appeased terrorists again by courting ETA. As the Iraq withdrawal was “an act of cowardice,” Mr. Aznar tells me that the De Juana Chaos case “reflects cowardly behavior and lack of dignity.” Strong stuff that goes well beyond the usual partisan jabbing in democracy. Socialists retort that the Aznarites are hypocrites who also released ETA prisoners in their day. (Mr. Zapatero has declined interview requests from the Journal.)

There’s more. The Zapatero government has encouraged Catalonia, the Basque Country and other regions in this highly decentralized state to seek new autonomy deals that call into question the current constitutional order, and may be a stepping stone to the possible break up of Spain.

And, to complete the picture of a state divided, wounds from Spain’s awful 1936-39 civil war and the subsequent four decades of General Franco’s dictatorship that most people assumed were long healed were ripped open by Mr. Zapatero. In a break with previous Socialist rulers, he openly plays politics with history. Rusting Franco-era statues are ceremoniously torn down. The church and the so-called bourgeoisie–the enemies for the divisive Second Republic of 1931-36–have come under attack. Anyone on the right is, often by implication, a fascist.

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Since Mr. Zapatero took office–in reality, since the bombs went off–“we have seen the re-emergence of two Spains,” says Hermann Tertsch, a senior correspondent at El Pais, a Socialist-leaning Madrid daily. “It’s very, very tense,” adds Mr. Tertsch, “close to real confrontation.” Violent? “Anything can happen,” he says, “anything.” The post-Franco bipartisan “compact is destroyed,” says Mr. Aznar. The danger: “Balkanization of the country,” he says. “What need is there to do this?” Mr. Aznar asks in discussing his political opponent’s policies. “Why–why risk everything, when things were going so well?”

In one of Europe’s most dynamic economies and successful new democracies, such talk can at first smack of exaggeration. But it’s not only anti-Zapatero partisans voicing these anxieties, which ultimately reflect the serious damage that terrorism has done to Spain’s confidence and its institutions. “The attacks showed that the idea that the Spanish transition had finished was wrong,” says Eduardo Nolla, a political theorist.

That such severe strains on a nation as old as Spain are the direct result of only a few dozen men mostly of Moroccan descent, who raised funds by selling hashish and set off homemade bombs, is hard to accept. So conspiracy theories abound. A chunk of Spain believes ETA was somehow involved in the attacks. Or Morocco’s secret services; Rabat, after all, got a new government in Madrid far more to its liking. Or it was a left-wing coup. In polls, a third of Spaniards reject the official version: That an al Qaeda-style group pulled 11M off on its own.

More innocent explanations are that shoddy police work hindered the investigation and kept Spaniards guessing about the true culprits. Politicians aren’t helping. Two years ago, a bipartisan investigation turned farce when both leading parties tried to twist the conclusions to their advantage.

The dominant presence in this edgy Spain is the leader, Mr. Zapatero. With an undistinguished academic and political record, little travel experience and no foreign languages–a man even Socialists didn’t expect to win–he was once dismissed as the “accidental prime minister.” With the tensions currently building up in Spanish politics, the country can ill afford any more accidents.