WHAT WE THINK
March 19, 2004 | Page 3
GEORGE W. BUSH exploited the tragedy of September 11 for crude political gain--conquering Afganistan and Iraq, rolling back civil liberties and whipping up fear and hatred to advance the Republican agenda in Washington. The horrific bombings on March 11 in the Spanish capital of Madrid--which killed more than 200 people and wounded 1,200--seemed to present one of Bush's European sidekicks, Prime Minister José María Aznar, with the same opportunity.
Yet just three days after the attacks, Aznar's conservative Popular Party (PP) was driven from office in a stunning electoral upset. Millions of Spanish voters who skipped the last election turned out to show their fury at the government's manipulation of information about the March 11 attack to blame the Basque separatist group ETA--when it knew that the available evidence pointed to al-Qaeda's involvement.
Suddenly, Bush has lost his closest ally in Europe after British Prime Minister Tony Blair--and the new Spanish prime minister, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero of the Socialist Party (PSOE), has promised to withdraw troops from Iraq, unless the United Nations takes control of the occupation.
In the U.S., conservative media hacks denounced Spanish voters for "appeasing" terrorism. Liberal commentator Daniel Schorr of National Public Radio claimed that "the al-Qaeda terrorists won the Spanish election, and George W. Bush lost it."
In fact, the vote against the PP reflects overwhelming opposition to the Iraq war--on display a year ago, when millions of Spaniards took to the streets on the eve of the war. Voters concluded that Spain's participation in the U.S.-led war made the country a target of al-Qaeda--and that the government's hysterical scapegoating of the ETA was a cynical way to deflect attention from this fact.
Whoever carried out the bombings, there is no political justification for such barbaric tactics. The attack succeeded in murdering people who were likely among the 90 percent of the Spanish population that opposed the Iraq war. And even with the right-wing PP driven out of office, the Madrid bombings will be used to justify new attacks on civil liberties across Europe, and in the U.S. as well.
If the conservatives in the PP believed that they could make gains by targeting the ETA and the Basque separatist movement, it's because they've aimed to carry out a program of strengthening and centralizing the Spanish state. By bashing the Basques--including a judicial ban on the Herri Batasuna nationalist party--Aznar tried to reverse a trend of decentralization that has put increasing economic and political power in the hands of regional governments, particularly in Catalonia, the richest part of Spain.
These policies are in keeping with the PP's roots in the right-wing dictatorship of Francisco Franco. And with the economic slowdown of recent years, Aznar increasingly relied on racist and reactionary policies, targeting the country's estimated 1.5 million immigrants with restrictive new laws. After the bombings, as the left-wing Spanish group Espacio Alternativo wrote, "Aznar was attempting to use the indignation of the citizenry to call for a closing of the ranks around the defense of the Constitution, announcing future measures to restrict liberties and basic rights in the name of the struggle against 'terrorism.'"
Aznar hoped his big lie about the ETA would last long enough--from the Thursday attack to the elections on Sunday--for his handpicked successor, Mariano Rajoy, to win. Spain's foreign minister directed the country's ambassadors around the world to declare that the ETA was responsible--and George Bush played along, denouncing the group in comments to reporters.
On the evening after the attack, millions of people answered the government's call to march in the streets to mourn the dead and condemn terrorism. Media coverage in the U.S. portrayed the huge rallies as an endorsement of Spanish government policy and the PP. In fact, the widespread outrage at the bombings also gave rise to anger over the government's attempts to target the ETA and the Basques.
Then came news came that five Muslim men had been arrested in connection with the bombings--and a small antiwar protest outside the PP headquarters the following day grew to tens of thousands as demonstrators used cell phones to pull more people into the streets. Protesters chanted, "Liars! Liars!" and carried banners that read, "Your war--our dead." By nightfall, the scene was repeated in cities around the country--and the PP was voted out the next day in a victory for the antiwar movement around the world.
Unfortunately, the incoming Socialist Party government can't be trusted to mount a consistent opposition to U.S. foreign policy. This same party ran Spain for 14 years up to 1996, and allowed U.S. bombers to use Spanish airbases to bomb Iraq during the 1991 Gulf War.
Spain entered NATO under the Socialists--and sent troops to help occupy Bosnia. Voters will put the heat on Zapateros to pull out of Iraq, but Spain remains an important cog in the imperialist machine.
Nevertheless, the defeat of the PP shows that even in the midst of horror and overwhelming grief, millions of people saw through the cynical manipulations of their government--and the lies dutifully repeated by the media.
Rather than stampeding people into support for a right-wing government, the attacks in Madrid led people to reject the war makers who have made the world a far more dangerous place. This is a warning to George Bush, who mounted his own campaign of lies and deceit over weapons of mass destruction to justify the invasion and occupation of Iraq.
The man who famously declared "you're either with us or against us" has discovered that most people in Spain are against him--even as they grieve for those who lost their lives in the senseless carnage of March 11.
The storm of criticism over Bush's use of imagery from September 11 in campaign ads is an indication that people in the U.S. are fed up with government lies, too. That's why the defeat of Washington's man in Madrid is a vindication for everyone, in Spain and around the world, who opposed the war on Iraq--and an inspiration for those organizing to end the unjust and brutal occupation of Iraq.