Thursday, March 18, 2004

From David Brooks' latest New York Times column:

I am trying not to think harshly of the Spanish. They have suffered a grievous blow, and it was crazy to go ahead with an election a mere three days after the Madrid massacre. Nonetheless, here is what seems to have happened:

The Spanish government was conducting policies in Afghanistan and Iraq that Al Qaeda found objectionable. A group linked to Al Qaeda murdered 200 Spaniards, claiming that the bombing was punishment for those policies. Some significant percentage of the Spanish electorate was mobilized after the massacre to shift the course of the campaign, throw out the old government and replace it with one whose policies are more to Al Qaeda's liking.

What is the Spanish word for appeasement?

Onn the other hand, a New York Times article written on the same day reports:

...terror struck. With Madrid under siege, voters were expected to rally around the flag and stick with the party that had talked the toughest against terrorism, at least initially. Even the Socialists braced themselves for that outcome, said two senior party officials.

But interviews with scores of Spaniards of both parties indicated that a number of things happened after the attacks that shifted the balance to the Socialists. Voters flooded the polls on Sunday in record numbers, especially young people who had not planned to vote. In interviews, they said they did so not so much out of fear of terror as out of anger against a government they saw as increasingly authoritarian, arrogant and stubborn. The government, they said, mishandled the crisis in the emotional days after the attacks.

Voters said they were enraged not only by the government's insistence that the Basque separatist group ETA was responsible, despite mounting evidence to the contrary, but they also resented its clumsy attempts to quell antigovernment sentiment.

For example, the main television channel TVE, which is state-owned, showed scant and selective scenes of antigovernment demonstrations on Saturday night, just as it ran very little coverage of the large demonstrations against the war in Iraq last year. It also suddenly changed its regular programming to air a documentary on the horrors of ETA.

That was the last straw for some Spaniards, who said it evoked the nightmare of censorship during the Franco dictatorship little more than a quarter of a century ago.

Prime Minister José María Aznar personally called the top editors of Spain's major dailies twice on the day of the attacks. In the first round of calls, Mr. Aznar said he was convinced that ETA was responsible.

"He said, `It was ETA, Antonio, don't doubt it in the least,' " said Antonio Franco, editor in chief of the Barcelona-based El Periódico de Catalunya, in an interview.

Its problematic to try to piece together a coherent story of the Spanish election. What was the main cause of the Socialist victory: the desire to appease Al Qaeda or anger at the goverments' handling of the crisis? There is really no way to know for certain. The whole thing reminds me of literary interpretation: given that there are a number of ways to read a certain text, can there really be a "right" reading?

Regardless, the election has been, and will be, interpreted as a victory for the terrorists. I'd bet there will be an attempt on Al Qaeda's part to replicate this: I think there will be a large scale terrorist act in the US before November.


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