When the bombs went off on Mar. 11, my roommate and I were on a train. Luckily, we were on a train from Sevilla. Hauntingly, we were supposed to be on a train that was coming from Madrid’s Atocha station, where most of the explosions were, but by utter carelessness we had gotten on the wrong train.
We didn’t even hear about the bombings until twelve hours later when we were trying to get on a train to go back to our hostel and were told that our train coming from Madrid had been canceled.
There had been an attack. 10 bombs. 202 dead. 1500 injured.
My roommate and I were shocked. Atocha. We were there two days before the bombings, and we had been there every day since we first arrived in Spain. But despite our anger and fear, my roommate and I got on another train that very evening. I have never felt such terror in my life. My body hurt and jumped at the sound of a foot tapping, a door closing, the lighting of a cigarette. I was frantic and irrational and emotional. I wanted something to blame, something to make sense of it, something to tell me there was a reason for this.
For the first time, I began to understand how people could support the United States’ decision to bomb Afghanistan and Iraq. These places offered targets. Places where we could place the blame. Places were we could demonstrate our physical force. Places where we could take back control.
Yet I also understood that we had no control. What kept us from being in Madrid was only a matter of 48 hours. We could have been on those trains. It was dumb luck. The only control we had was whether or not to let this fear control our lives; the people of Spain decided not to give in. Whereas Americans were building bomb shelters and buying bottled water right after Sept. 11, after Mar. 11 the Spaniards took to the streets. They went to the plazas, holding signs that read “no to terrorism, no to violence, no to war.” They stood together to demonstrate their solidarity, their grief and their rejection of violence. And when the government failed them, they spoke up by voting the Popular Party out of office.
Some people have argued that by voting out the Popular Party, the Spanish people let the terrorists win. But this isn’t the case. Even before the bombings in Madrid, the public was against the government’s past policies. When the Spanish government tried to pin the blame on ETA by suppressing evidence and abusing its control over state television and radio, it reminded the Spanish people about the many lies that came before — the lies the government used to justify their participation in the war against Iraq against the wishes of 90 percent of the public.
By ousting the Popular Party, the Spaniards were asserting their right to democracy. They were holding their leaders accountable. They were taking control of their own lives and their own domestic politics. They were not “appeas[ing] terrorists” as Dennis Hastert, the speaker of the house, has asserted.
In fact, when the new party leader, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, accepted his position he said, “my immediate priority will be to fight all forms of terrorism.” Additionally, he only wished to pull out troops from Iraq if the United Nations failed to become more involved. His actions are not actions of appeasement, but rather signify a recognition that things need to change. Zapatero and the Spanish people are offering another approach to international politics — one that involves a multifaceted, multinational campaign, one that seeks to build up nations rather than toppling them to the ground.
The suggestion that the Spaniards caved into their fear of terrorism speaks more to our own fears of terrorism and our recent responses to it. For Americans, the war against terrorism has made us even more powerless. For not only are we scared of external threats, we are also scared of our own government. We have been afraid to call out the administration, to challenge their policies and the actions.
A recent report from Richard Clarke, Bush’s former counter-terrorism advisor and a registered Republican, argues that the Bush administration had been warned about possible attacks from Al Qaeda and had been told that Iraq had nothing to do with Sept. 11. As he says: “[Rumsfeld, Cheney and Bush] did know better… We told them, the CIA told them, the FBI told them. They did know better. And the tragedy here is that Americans went to their death in Iraq thinking that they were avenging Sept. 11, when Iraq had nothing to do with Sept. 11. I think for a commander-in-chief and a vice president to allow that to happen is unconscionable.”
Yet no one has taken action to address this issue. Congress has not censured Bush. The public has not rallied together to protest. In fact, according to this month’s Harper’s Index, not one single U.S. newspaper has even had the courage to call any White House statement on Iraq a lie.
We have allowed our own administration to control and manipulate us. To make us fearful of speaking up because to do so appears unpatriotic: you are either with us or against us, they cry. We have created an us-them dichotomy in our own country. The Spanish response has been to look beyond the us-them dichotomy. It looks for an alternative to the violence and the destruction and the fear. It asks the question: what kind of world have we created where people, from both the East and the West, feel violence is the only answer?
If Madrid teaches us anything, it’s that the war in Iraq failed, that terrorism still exists, and that the only thing we can control is our own politics. The Spanish people have already taken back control. It’s time we did the same.
Della Sentilles is a sophomore in Silliman College.