Friday, March 20, 2009

The Madrid Train Bombings....Five Years On

I still remember very clearly the day of the Madrid train bombings, the 5th anniversary passed just last week. The impact of what happened on the 11th March 2004 was tremendous, and even though I was away from my adopted home city at the time I still picked up much of the atmosphere of a city in shock. Then came the reaction, and the subsequent rise in tension as it became clear over the following couple of days that the Spanish government was still trying to maintain that ETA were responsible for the bombings even as clear evidence of Islamist authorship was emerging. I watched live on CNN the footage of the demonstration outside of the headquarters of the governing Partido Popular on the day before the general election; images which I believe many people in Spain never got to see.

That day, March 14th, was a turning point. The administration led by Jose Maria Aznar was thrown out of office on a wave of indignation over their attempts to mislead public opinion for short term electoral benefit. That should have been the end of attempts to use the Madrid bombings for political advantage. Unfortunately it was just the beginning. On the same day that the outgoing caretaker government handed over power to the new administration the first article of what were to develop into the conspiracy theories about the bombings appeared in El Mundo. That marked the beginning of a still unfinished campaign that seeks to use the bombings as an instrument of political revenge for the election result that followed.

Now conspiracy theories surrounding terrorist attacks are common, particularly in cases when many of the perpetrators are dead or missing. The difference in the case of Spain is that the conspiracy theorists had the full backing of the principal opposition party and the second biggest selling daily newspaper in the country. You have to try and imagine a situation where the Democrats and any major media outlet accuse the Bush administration of organising 9-11. Or where the Conservatives in Britain claim that the 2005 bombings in London were the work of an alliance between Tony Blair, the IRA and foreign intelligence services. In short, the reaction of those who were caught out trying to manipulate public opinion was to try and do more of the same; but on a bigger scale!

I’d never witnessed anything quite like it anywhere. I know of course that there are those who regard a major terrorist attack as a political opportunity, there is sadly no shortage of examples, but the campaign organised in Spain was still quite shocking. There was a sustained attempt to discredit both the investigation into the bombings and the subsequent trial, the objective always being to sow the maximum doubt possible about the authorship of the attacks. It failed, in the sense that the trial proceeded and that sentences were handed down as recorded on this blog. It succeeded in the sense that many people today in Spain have accepted at least some of the grotesque distortion of events sold by the conspiracy theorists. In the process, those behind these theories have created the kind of sectarian divide where some victims of the bombings are denied funding from the regional government of Madrid because they refuse to subscribe to the conspiracy theories. Nothing is too shameful for those responsible for such decisions; they still turn out to “commemorate” each anniversary.

Things have quietened down since the general election of 2008, when the opposition PP finally realised that accusing the Spanish Prime Minister of complicity with terrorists wasn’t going to be their route back to power. Since then, the media outlets behind the conspiracy theories have found themselves marginalised for choosing the wrong side in the PP’s internal power struggles. The foot soldiers of the campaign, the Peones Negros, have been reduced to a rump grouping that spend their days bemoaning the inability of the Spanish people to rise up against an imagined alliance between the left and regional nationalists to destroy the country.

But then came the anniversary. El Mundo could think of no better way to mark it than handing over their front page to Luis del Pino, leader of the Peones Negros, so that he could treat us to more examples of his particular journalistic technique. Del Pino’s big scoop was that Jamal Zougham (convicted as one of those who placed the bombs on the trains) had been in the gym the night before the bombings, when according to Del Pino he should have been busy preparing the bombs for the next day. Therefore he must be innocent. That’s about the standard of the conspiracy theories these days. There are also still books being published suggesting, but of course at no point demonstrating, the existence of a hidden hand behind the bombings. The now thoroughly discredited attempts to implicate ETA in the bombings have been given a new twist by the chess players, so very, very clever were the true perpetrators that they left false clues pointing toward ETA involvement.

This blog was never really intended to be an account of the train bombings, although obviously it has been necessary to enter into occasionally minute detail on aspects of what happened 5 years ago. However, the main focus has always been on what drove me to create it in the first place, the political abuse of terror. The blog isn’t quite finished yet, there are still trials taking place with a direct or indirect relation to what happened in Madrid. Also, there are a few posts waiting to be written on some of the myths propagated by those who thought the horrible death of almost 200 people provides a suitable platform for combining politics and business in the same neat package.