Spanish Contrasts

Also published on and on and on

March 15, 2004

If terrorists draw the lesson from Spain that mass murder can change an election, then the United States, among other countries, could be in for a terrible October surprise. But it seems likely that a terrorist act in the United States aimed at defeating President Bush at the polls would instead ensure his reelection.

The Spanish immediately reacted to the bombing in Madrid with a mental feat that is considered, if not impossible, at least impermissible in the United States. They simultaneously condemned the terrorists and demanded to know what role their own government had played in causing the terror.

To many outside the United States, this ability to walk and chew gum at the same time seems obvious and predictable. It would not be surprising if a terrorist group expected to be able to produce it in the United States as well. I expected it in the United States when I wrote this woefully ignorant column on September 11, 2001.

But the US just doesn’t work the way other countries do. When the airplanes hit the buildings, the popularity of the president and of the mayor of New York immediately soared. Bush is still bragging about it today. And, following September 11th, our government immediately escalated the very behaviors that seemed most likely to produce more terrorist attacks.

In the US, we are either with the president or we’re with the terrorists, and it is just not appropriate to point out ways in which our government has been encouraging terrorism, including the terrorism in Spain. If we mention such things, we are forbidden to also condemn the terrorists and sympathize with the victims, because accomplishing such mental acrobatics makes Bill O’Reilly’s brain hurt.

Those of us who want to vote Bush out of office in November need to build the momentum of that movement now, and we need to carry through to the election regardless of what happens.

We don’t know what terrorists might do, and our fear of them has already been used by Bush to strip us of liberties and wealth. The US may not witness an incident like September 11th for many years to come. Or we may witness one aimed at keeping Bush in power. There’s no way to predict with certainty. We can be certain our “intelligence” agencies don’t have a clue. And there is a way in which it would make sense to say “the terrorists win” if we start shaping our behavior to our expectations of terrorism.

But we need to be prepared for anything in the coming election, including Bush pulling Bin Laden out of a closet, including Bush launching another illegal war, and including a bomb going off in the US. One way to help prepare Americans to make a wise decision in November in the face of any of these events would be to help them understand what has happened in Spain.

The Spanish mourned their victims and condemned the murderers, but they also asked whether anyone else was responsible. They did not treat responsibility as an Oscar to be awarded to one and only one individual, preferably via a lynching. They treated responsibility as something anyone could have a share of if they had taken actions or failed to take actions that they could reasonably have known would make a difference.

The Spanish concluded that their government had supported an aggressive war that had created this blowback, and that no other considerations made that war worthwhile, that nothing outweighed the massive deaths and injuries in Madrid.

The Spanish are not saints or geniuses. They knew about the war and the deaths and injuries of many more innocent Iraqis even before the bombing, when they were expected to keep the current government in place. But they are not idiots either. They know that if their government had not supported the war the bombs in Madrid probably would not have gone off.

We, on the other hand, are idiots. We do not know that our government’s policies in the Middle East were likely the single biggest motivation of the September 11th attackers. We do not know that our current actions in Afghanistan and Iraq are serving as major recruiting tools for terrorist organizations. We do not know that Iraq had nothing to do with September 11th. We do not know that our government is encouraging hostility in its actions toward nations around the world. We do not know that George W. Bush was the same lying scheming patrician C-student on September 12th that he had been the day before.

Let’s use March 20th to help teach these lessons. Let’s show no signs of fear.