Two Choices for Europe
. After ten blasts on four trains in Madrid on Thursday, March 11 opened a new, European front in the global war on terrorism. The tactics of the killers were simple and ghastly: bombs placed in backpacks on crowded commuter trains at rush hour. The intention was clear: mass murder on as large a scale as possible. The targets were not government buildings or officers, but innocent civilians. And 200 of those civilians died at the hands of the terrorists, with more than 1,400 wounded. This was Spain's - and Europe's - September 11th.
Until now, in continental Europe, the war on terror has been perceived as fundamentally an American operation. The European reaction to the attacks on the United States on September 11th was to express sympathy and solidarity, and pledge assistance to the United States. This was essentially costless: European nations knew the United States had little need for European military assistance. Silently, Europeans assumed that the United States was likely to be the target of all such future attacks, and that the United States would continue to manage these ongoing threats to global stability. Now that European vulnerability to terrorism has been exposed, Europe must decide how to react.
Spain responded powerfully to its government's calls for a manifestacion against the terrorist attacks in Madrid. With city transit services all over the country waiving fares on March 12, over 11 million people throughout Spain, and over 2 million in Madrid alone, braved pouring rain and biting cold to march between the Plaza de Colon and the Puerta del Sol. Crossing streets were packed with people farther than a mile from the central plaza. The subway stations near Plaza de Colon were a Malthusian nightmare, with demonstrators forced to wait nearly half an hour simply to exit the station. The crowd's message was as powerful as its size: chants of ¨No mas assassins! No mas victimas!¨ dominated the proceedings. The march was led by Spain´s Prime Minister, Jose Maria Aznar, and the Spanish royal family, who appeared without the benefit of umbrellas. Spain´s emotional response to the attacks was powerful, even if the country's political reaction seemed the opposite.
Upon asking many participants about the political fallout of the attacks upon Spain's recent elections, the response centered upon which terrorist group was ultimately responsible. If the culprit was ETA, the Basque separatist organization, many responses indicated that Aznar's Partido Popular would gain support, since they had taken a harder line toward ETA in recent years.
However, if the group responsible was Al-Qaeda or another Islamic militant group, the Spanish people were likely to blame Aznar and his party for their strong endorsement of the United States in the war in Iraq. The implication, spoken explicitly by some demonstrators but left unsaid by others, was that the war on Islamist terrorism was not Spain's war until Aznar unjustifiably intertwined Spain with the United States in the eyes of the terrorists. These sentiments illustrate two possible choices for both Spain and Europe regarding the war on terror. Terrorism may be either a tactic of a regional war within the international system or a global war against the pillars of the international system itself.
Based on the election results yesterday, it seems clear that the Spanish people want little part of the war on terrorism at the present time. While the left-center PSOE trailed last week by about 5 percentage points, they registered a resounding 5 percentage point victory yesterday against Aznarss PP. This translated to a 16-seat advantage in the legislature, reversing the PP's majority from the 2000 elections.
ETA fit a typical mold of terrorist organizations as we understood them in the late 20th century. They struck government targets, killed relatively few people (compared to recent attacks), and relied upon the demonstration effect of their attacks to focus attention upon their political goals. The new global terror threat, exemplified by the tactics of Al-Qaeda, is motivated more by religion than contemporary international politics, emphasizes the links between civilians and their governments, making all civilians ¨legitimate¨ targets, and aims to kill as many civilians as possible. The shocking fact for many observers of the September 11th attacks was not that 3,000 died, but that the terrorists would have killed 30,000 or 300,000 had the means been available. They did not practice the tactics of discretion or restraint. They were not waiting for an offer of land for peace from any government. They wanted to destroy governments themselves.
Europe has two choices. Europeans can view the recent attacks in Madrid as isolated, random acts of violence, where moral exhortations such as the recent demonstrations will be sufficient to defuse the political momentum of the terrorists. Europe can assume that the larger American war against Islamic
fundamentalist fascism will remain separate from their own, domestic struggles against regional terrorists like ETA. They can assume groups like ETA will have the civility never to cooperate with Al-Qaeda, because it just doesn't make any sense for them to do so. Europeans can assume Al-Qaeda will keep its focus on America, since even though Al-Qaeda's sworn enemies are the free, secular, decadent nations of the West, which surely could not include Europe, with its obvious efforts to incorporate Islamic culture and immigrants into a tolerant, multiethnic, multicultural society.