The Grove of the Absent was bulldozed into existence on the southern
edge of the Parque del Retiro, that sprawl of`parterre flowerbeds and
lofty trees where residents of the Spanish capital seek out summer
shade, their most precious urban amenity. Beyond the park’s five-lane
traffic perimeter you can see the arched vault of Atocha station, scene
of one of the four coordinated bomb blasts that killed 191 people as
they were taking Madrid’s commuter trains to work or school early in
the morning of March 11, 2004.
Exactly one year later, Kofi Annan and a dozen other foreign dignitaries were on hand to join Prime Minister José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, leaders of the opposition and local government figures as King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia presided over five minutes of silence at the inauguration of the terraced slopes planted with 192 cypress and olive trees in remembrance of those killed in what is to date the deadliest mass terror attack perpetrated in any European country.
Excuse me, but wasn’t that supposed to be 191? Well, yes and no, sort of. Some assumed Prime Minister José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero had been persuaded to follow minority press usage and concede victim status to the three-month fetus carried by a 34-year old computer programmer who died in the blast. An odd and, as it turned out, wrong call on a government that has been loudly trumpeting late-term abortion on demand as one of the rights it intends to bestow upon the Spanish people. When clarification finally came, victim 192 was identified as the Police Special Forces captain killed the following April 3rd while leading a raid on the flat where seven of the ten Islamic terrorists known to have directly participated in the attack blew themselves up to evade arrest. Just as happened in New York in the aftermath of the 9-11 catastrophe, it was decided not to single out the hero-victims from the just plain victim-victims, as this might be taken as imputing second-class status to the latter.
It would, of course, be trivializing an immense human tragedy to claim that former prime minister José Maria Aznar was equally a victim of March 11, though good and sufficient reasons exist to support the contention that the attacks did in fact alter the outcome of the elections which, according to the polls, his handpicked successor Mariano Rajoy had all but sewn up, and obliterated the political legacy Anzar had hoped to leave after two terms in office. You’ll never hear that line of argument from the current government, though, as that would be tantamount to admitting that Zapatero owes his mandate to one hundred and ninety something corpses.
But certainly Aznar qualifies as one of the absentees. They didn’t even bother inviting him to the remembrance ceremonies, so deep is Zapatero’s loathing of the man whose party he never had a hope in hell of defeating. Instead, the ex-premier was in Mexico giving a lecture on the former-statesman circuit worked to death by Bill Clinton. “March 11 was the most terrible and painful thing I have experienced in my entire life,” Aznar told his audience. “Even more so than the attack [by Basque ETA terrorists] ten years ago in which I almost lost my life. I’ve never felt a more searing personal agony than during those days of infamy.”
The official government line on the elections held four days after the attacks is that the bombs had no effect whatsoever on voter’s intentions, inasmuch as Spaniards had long since decided to repudiate Aznar’s party for having cuddled up to Bush and Blair by sending a mainly symbolic contingent of Spanish troops to help maintain order in southern Iraq. The implication, of course, is that Aznar is practically as guilty as the terrorists for what happened. And the unstated electoral alibi is that because of Iraq, the Spanish people had already made up their mind to support Zapatero’s Socialist Party before the attacks occurred.
So we may safely assume it was not a scheduling issue that made Aznar miss his chance to stay at home and follow the remembrance and mourning events on TV. The media honored the government’s plea for them to respect the feelings of victims’ families by not broadcasting the most disturbing images. Camera crew who were present have told me about blood-chilling footage in which cell phones chime out their ding-a-ling ditties amidst the smoldering, twisted wreckage, as people anxiously tried to make contact with loved ones who were already dead or dying.
Aznar did not get to hear more than 650 church bells in the greater Madrid region ring out in unison at 7:37 AM, the moment when the shrapnel-packed dynamite charges detonated on the trains. He did not listen to the young cellist at the Grovel of the Absent perform the same Catalan folk song that Pablo Casals played for the United Nations back in 1971 in the name of world peace. In the audience at the Madrid memorial ceremony was King Mohammed VI of Morocco, the eager autocrat who presides over the country from which all but a handful of the terrorists came. He thanked Spaniards for “knowing how to tell the difference between a true Muslim and a terrorist” and steering clear of a backlash against the half-million Muslims living in Spain, most of them Moroccans.
Aznar did not get to see how the TV arm of Spain’s symbiotic media empire, which had helped engineer the Socialists’ come-from-behind victory, battened onto the father of one victim and encouraged him to rant on camera about how his son’s death was all the fault of Aznar and Iraq. Aznar also missed the requiem Mass at the Almudena cathedral where Madrid Archbishop Rouco Varela urged Spaniards “not to let the terrorists have the last word”.
Nor was Aznar present at the three-day “International Summit on Terrorism and Democracy” held in the run-up, to which his successor had invited some 50 present and former heads of state and government to Madrid along with religious leaders and some 200 “experts.” Why 200 viewpoints were supposed to be helpful or even relevant to the occasion is not clear. The name of the conference, though, is telling: In Spain you’re not allowed to talk about “Islamic terrorism” any more. Too judgmental and unfair to the 1.2 billion nonhomicidal adherents of that religion, several million of whom live just 13 miles away on the other side of the Strait of Gibraltar. The buzzword from now on is going to be “international terrorism.” Just so you get it right.
Had Anzar been at the conference, he might have been enjoyed how BassaM Tibi, the Syrian-born chair of International Relations at the University of Göttingen in Germany, made his Spanish hosts squirm when he observed that “the [terrorists’] objective of changing the government was 100% successful”.
Likewise it may have comforted Aznar to read that according to the most recent polls, 70% of Spaniards surveyed are just as convinced as he is that had it not been for the attacks, Zapatero would never have come to power. (The bad news is that the same poll gives Zapatero a high approval rating after his first year in office).
For his part, Aznar believes the attacks were deliberately timed and aimed at “inverting the outcome” of the elections. He may be right. Until it is known who coordinated the parallel schemes for acquiring the money, recruits, dynamite, and technical expertise required for the attacks, it is hard to say one way or another whether the terrorists deliberately intended to finesse a change of government or were “merely” out to slaughter as many innocent people as they possibly could.
If Aznar had been present in Madrid, he would have found bitter consolation in the fact that the Zapatero administration’s own top adviser on terrorism, Fernando Reinares, has had the courage to repeat in print what he was quoted as saying immediately after the attacks: that they had nothing to do with Iraq. “Spain has been a generic target at least since 1996, a specific target since the latter part of 2001 and an openly-proclaimed target since October 2003,” he stated. “The September 11 attacks in the United States helped make it clear that that since the mid-1990s, our country has been Al Qaeda’s principal base in Europe.”
In fact, some sort of big-ticket atrocity was in the works as far back as the summer of 2001, about the same time September 11 hijacker Mohammed Atta was meeting with his Al Qaeda bagman in the eastern Spanish city of Tarragona. It appears the scheme was upgraded to operational status after the May 2003 Casablanca attacks in which 40 people died and Spanish interests were targeted. Other evidence suggests that the terrorists might have been acting under direct orders from Imad Eddin Barakat Yarkas, alias Abu Dahdah, a Syrian-born iman believed to be Al Qaeda’s top representative in Spain, even since being jailed in November 2001 for his suspected involvement in the September 11 attacks.
If not Iraq, what made the terrorists decide to strike at Spain? It appears to have been for the same reasons that Islamic radicals have been using the country as a safe haven since as long ago as 1994: Because Spain is a pushover. It has a Muslim population of over half a million, plenty of storefront mosques for one stop recruitment of wannabe martyrs - single, unemployed males in the country illegally - and a source of ready financing in the Moroccan-controlled hash trade. To these add security forces that have their hands full with Basque terrorists, inept judges who make it easy to get off on appeal, and pitifully lax airport security. Not that Spain’s intelligence services were unaware of what was going on. They concluded, however, that the country was unlikely to be targeted by the same groups that found it a useful and relatively hassle-free sanctuary and staging area.
To this day Zapatero maintains that it was Aznar’s decision to send a token Spanish contingent to help stabilize southern Iraq that provoked the jihad boys — excuse me, international terrorists — to retaliate. Good reason to believe Spain will remain Al Qaeda’s European base for many years to come.