Spain's 'Sept. 11' Shakes Europeans, But Differently Than Americans

ROME — A chain of explosions at the height of rush hour March 11 blasted through trains near the Madrid stations of Atocha, Pozo del Tio Raimundo and St. Eugenia.

Never before had Europe seen 190 corpses and 1,400 wounded as the result of one terrorist assault. The March 11 blasts shook Spaniards to the bones as the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks had shaken Americans exactly 911 days earlier.

I was in upper Manhattan when the Twin Towers collapsed. I was in Rome when the Spanish trains blew up. Being Spanish myself, did I see Spaniards and Europeans react to this tragedy as Americans did to theirs?

In some ways, yes. A kindred solidarity burst out in people's hearts, beginning with Spaniards. In Madrid, people flocked to the tragic scene to help out. Thousands volunteered to donate blood. A morgue was set up in the IFEMA exhibitions center, where several psychologists were assigned for each victim's family.

Madrid's priests sped to hospitals and centers to care for the injured. And for several days, taxi drivers, hospital staffs and hotel owners offered free rides, surgeries and lodgings for the wounded and their relatives.

The Spanish government provided millions of euros to the victims’ families, and the “ground zeroes” quickly became shrines — with pictures, love messages, flowers, candles and prayers.

The day after the attack, 11.6 million people — about 30% of the total Spanish population — peacefully demonstrated in the streets of the main Spanish cities. In Madrid 2.3 million people walked out in the rain.

“It is not raining. Madrid is crying,” people sang. “In those trains all of us went. Not all of us are here: 200 are missing.”

The demonstration was led by Spanish officials and representatives of many European and Latin American nations.

“A united Spain will never be defeated,” some participants cheered. Many waved Spanish flags with a black bow drawn in the center — the typical sign of mourning used to mark tragedy. Others bore signs reading, “Yesterday all of us died,” “We are all victims,” “No to terrorism,” “No more dead” and “Peace.”

The Old Continent reacted as one nation. A few hours after the blasts, the European Parliament declared March 11 European Day of Victims of Terrorism.

Four days later, at noon, all of Europe was paralyzed for three silent minutes in honor of the victims. Traffic, shopping, office work and classes all grounded to a halt. Pope John Paul II joined in by kneeling in prayer in his private chapel.

On March 24, a moving solemn Mass was celebrated at the Madrid Cathedral of La Almudena for the victims’ relatives. Prime ministers and presidents of most European, Latin American and North African nations attended the celebration. Secretary of State Colin Powell represented the United States.

“Your sorrow,” Cardinal Antonio Rouco Varela, archbishop of the Spanish capital, said in his homily to the victims’ families, “quickly became the sorrow of our beloved city of Madrid, of Spain and of the whole world.”

He was right. An amazing bond of solidarity united peoples from different nations, races and creeds, showing how much potential the human heart hides for the building of a civilization of love. The March 11 public manifestations of compassion echoed the ones of Sept. 11.

Political Reaction

Yet there were differences between the Spanish and American reactions to their tragedies in the religious and political spheres.

As a Red Cross chaplain for Sept. 11 victims’ relatives, I witnessed the surge of religious life in the United States. Private and public prayers, Masses and church services multiplied in the aftermath. Religious interpretation of the event — in the light of divine providence or even as God's chastisement for American sins — were not uncommon.

Not so much in Spain. In the Catholic nation, Christian funerals and burials were held in the churches and graveyards of the victims’ origin. Not many people, however, flocked to churches, nor did religious sentiment surge in the aftermath.

The reading of the tragedy was more political than religious. Most people saw it as the result of Spain's joining the United States in attacking Iraq. The war in Iraq was, by far, the most unpopular decision of the ruling Popular Party, with between 80% and 90% of voters against it.

Before and after the U.S.-led invasion, the crowded anti-war demonstrations and the opinions aired in the media left the Spanish government in no doubt about the feelings of most Spaniards. Yet until the bombings, the ruling party was still popular, mostly on account of its economic successes. Before March 11 all the polls predicted the Popular Party would attain a comfortable victory in the March 14 general elections.

The terrorist attacked changed that. The day before the elections, hundreds of thousands demonstrated in Spanish cities against the government. Popular President José María Aznar was booed when he cast his vote.

People's emotions were felt in the election turnout — 77.2% of people voted, an increase of 8.5% from the 2000 elections, giving 3 million more votes and an upset victory to the opposition Socialist Party.

The first announcement of President-elect José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero was his commitment to bring Spanish troops home from Iraq on June 30 if the United Nations is not in charge of the nation by then.

Europeans, for the most part, were also anti-war and read the tragedy in the Spanish way, with the focus on trying to stop terrorism internally rather than fighting battles on foreign soil. On March 25, the European Union created an anti-terrorist task force headed by Gijs de Vries, a former Dutch politician who was immediately “Mr. Anti-Terrorist.”

The new task force will raise funds for victims of terrorism and coordinate the intelligence and the anti-terrorist resources of European governments. “All the nations [of Europe] will mobilize every instrument, including military force, to prevent terrorist threats in the land of any nation,” a European Union statement declared.

“The plague of the present world, also of our Spain, is today terrorism,” the Spanish bishops’ conference stated after the bombings.

With the tragedy, Europe now shares the anti-terrorist fears of the United States. It does not seem, however, that the United States and Europe will face their common threat in exactly the same way.

Legionary Father Alfonso Aguilar teaches at Regina Apostolorum Pontifical University in Rome. [email protected]