This is a little diary I kept through the very intense days between the 11 March bombings in Madrid and the 15 March national elections.
11 March, 2004
This has been one of those days that is an event, a sea change, and the air feels weird. After today it will not be the same as before. There is none of the talk, as there was in the US a couple of years ago, of lost innocence and betrayed faith. The question is political. To understand what is happening here and what today's gruesome bombings mean one has to understand the Spanish scene a bit.
As soon as the trains explode the immediate assumption is that it was ETA, the radios and televisions talk about ETA, all the engines of indignation are primed, all the politicians make strident pronunciations about national unity and the inviolability of the constitution. ETA is a magic word in Spain. It is the word that silences all dissent, rallies all parties. So incredibly effective is the tactic of associating - or threatening to associate - any contradictory voices with ETA that no one dares to speak. Nothing can be said. In everything that has to do with the Basque question the left gets very quiet, the social movements step aside - when they close newspapers, when they take prisoners arbitrarily among young Basques and torture them in jail, when they illegalize a major political party and ransack its offices - the rest of Europe howls in alarm and within Spain there is echoing silence. Every move ETA makes is another little victory for the rightist Popular Party and their Spanish nationalist discourse, another little justification for a general economy of fear, suspicion and control.
Some weeks ago a leftist Catalan politician did the unthinkable and met with representatives of ETA. Soon after, a ceasefire was announced in Catalonia. This was an enormous scandal, criminal, perhaps treasonous: what kind of a monster would sit at a negotiating table with terrorists? What kind of a monster would accept a partial ceasefire, protecting Barcelona and leaving Madrid exposed? With the national presidential campaign in full swing, everyone - the Popular Party, the Socialists, the various liberal Basque and Catalan parties - hustled to distance themselves from the affair. The PP lambasted all the others for their supposed lenience with terrorists, and the others duly cowered. Every radio frequency and every printing press trembled and buzzed with the words 'Spain,' 'National Unity', 'Constitution.'
Thus, any action on the part of ETA could only be a triumph for the PP: demonstrating that indeed there is immediate peril, that indeed the Catalans did buy their safety at the price of Madrid's. Any action by ETA leaves the whole left stuck in a very uncomfortable silence, condemning terrorism, mourning loss, but unable to also condemn the way the PP uses ETA to chanticleer its securitarian centralist policies. So the _quo bono_ is clear.
But why would ETA do this? They have long been politically off the deep end and I certainly don't feel in any position to explain any of the choices they make, but they have maintained their basic principle of choosing specific targets among the political class, maintained at least some element of their Marxist heritage. The trains that were bombed today were coming from the most marginal of the working-class peripheral neighborhoods, largely inhabited by migrants and gypsies. Aznar, echoing Bush's "they hate us because we are free" has declared that "they killed them for being Spanish." In fact, a huge percent of the dead are migrants, many without papers, many whose families are too afraid of the police to go claim the bodies.
Around the rest of Europe and the US the hypothesis that the bombings were produced by Al Qaeda was circulating since midday: here in Madrid the media has treated that hypothesis as a "subversive campaign" and suppressed it entirely. The government has called for a massive demonstration under the slogan "With the victims, For the Constitution, Against Terrorism." "For the Constitution," you must understand, is to say 'for the centralized state', perhaps even 'for the present government': the Spanish Constitution of 1978 was a compromise made to facilitate the transition from Francoism, but which left many (from the Left and from the autonomous regions) extremely dissatisfied. It continues to be a point of tension. Thus the demonstration proposed is a means of gathering up all the pain and fear and anger and confusion of the people and soldering this into a national consensus of support for the PP, a ban on any criticism. Three days before elections.
Now as I troll through newspapers all around the world, the hypothesis that Al Qaeda is responsible for the attacks seems more and more generally confirmed. Still the Spanish news insists on ETA. Who knows? As was the case with September 11th, to the degree that I don't have any access to the truth or any criteria for judging what is true and what is not in this case, what is important to think about is not so much 'who did it' as 'what are the consequences.' On the level of immediate consequences, many people from social movements breathed a sigh of relief to hear that Al Qaeda claimed the bombings: at least about that we have something to say. At least about that we can intervene, we can respond with things like: "This is the fault of the government that got us involved in a global war despite the opposition of 90% of the population." Or we can denounce them for having assumed it was ETA. Or we can group around the migrants' organizations, which will no doubt find themselves bombarded by a new intensified islamophobic criminalization. For this at least we have some kind of critical discourse, some way of saying 'neither this nor that' which in the case of ETA we do not.
Needless to say I feel very ambivalent about this sigh of relief. Indeed, in the very short term and on a very immediate level (that is to say: what should we do about the demonstration this afternoon?) the probability that the bombings were authored by Al Qaeda rather than ETA changes the equation: there is even the possibility that the demonstration change its general message from 'all together with the Constitution and the PP' to 'all together against the PP and its bellicosity'. This could have electoral effects. Maybe. But bigger effects? Because on Sunday when the elections are over we have to go on living in the world and see what this means for Spain and for Europe in the global war, what further barbarities this attack serves to justify. Syria? Iran? I tremble to think. If this were the US I am sure that the emerging discourse would be (from those in power) 'see how bad they are? see how we were right going to war?' and from those not in power 'we were against the war before, but now they have attacked us and now there is no going back, onward to the apocalypse and total victory.' In Spain, however, its not so clear what will come out of this. It could go any of several ways. It is important to intervene, to produce discourses, to prevent that the worst conclusions be drawn. It is also important to think seriously about the question of Al Qaeda and not dedicate ourselves exclusively to the sort of intuitive alchemy that permits us to convert any new bad guys into 'los malos de siempre' and continue, unchanged and unrevised, the kneejerk denunciations of the state, capitalism, globalization, militarization, etc. etc.
But astonishingly, as time passes, the radios, the televisions, the special edition newspapers continue to talk uniformly and exclusively about ETA, continue to dismiss hypotheses of Al Qaeda as 'subversive'. How long can they maintain this? Until after the demonstration this afternoon? Until after the elections Sunday? In a globalized world of international information saturation, how is it possible to maintain a separate and hermetic 'truth' in Spain? (More or less as they have in the US...) Now all attention focuses on the heroic interventions of the firefighters and the doctors and the citizen volunteers.
So in the very short term: do we go to the demonstration? How? Many are afraid that we will get beaten up there, just because it will be a big party of the right-wing centralists crowing against ETA and that anyone with a sort of lefty look who shows up will be in danger, not only of cooptation but of real violence. not to mention anyone that goes with the explicit intention of interrupting the blood-consecrated consensus. This is Spain, after all, and 1936 never dies, it is compulsively resurrected and reproduced by all parties. So do we stay home, hide, let them take the day and use the blood of all these poor people to the greater glory of the united crusader state of Spain? And the elections? In a year of war, of ecological disaster, of augmented persecution of migrants, of broken labor agreements, of the growing power of the Church in schools and services, of widespread wife-murder (and its approbation by the Church), of onslaught against gay rights, of real-estate speculation and housing crisis, etc etc can we afford to stay home and let terrorism work its consolidating magic: all together behind the state, there is no alternative.
What is clear is that we have to take a camera, just to see what happens when the left, the right, the nationalists, the migrants, the islamophobes, the muslims, everyone has reason to demonstrate and no one knows exactly how or why or against whom or for what and there we all will be, each with our interpretation of the question, our interrogation or demand for transparency or lament or blame or...
Off to a meeting to decide what to do. Just wanted to share the view from here.
13 March, 2004
(response to a letter from a friend)
Let me clarify a few things.
First of all: I am obviously not making any apologies for ETA. What I am denouncing, however, is the power which the mere mention of ETA has in silencing thoughtful public discourse in Spain, particularly in Madrid. When the name ETA is mentioned, the only possible response is denunciation, and who does not denounce in the way deemed correct runs the risk of being criminalized. See for example the case of Julio Medem, whose documentary 'La Pelota Vasca' was widely boycotted for trying to open the debate a bit. This atmosphere does not lend itself to nuanced analysis or open debate. This goes for all parties, the whole political structure of the country, the media, etc.
Therefore, when there was no particularly clear reason to be sure that the author of the bombings was ETA - possible that it was they, yes, but sure, no - the government's immediate and total conviction that it was ETA had the effect of halting other inquiries, prohibiting doubt.
Yesterday at 6pm, before the massive demonstrations, ETA called the Basque newspaper Gara and announced that it was not they. As diabolical as they may be, even the ministers of the PP have acknowledged in the past that ETA always tells the truth about its attacks: if they say its not them its not them. Throughout the day Al Qaeda had been announcing its responsibility in the Arab press, and international experts had been confirming the authenticity of these claims. None of this, NONE of it, was released by the Madrid press until immediately after the demonstration. Today the press is divided: depending on the political orientation of each channel or newspaper they are acknowledging or not acknowledging this information, leaving each person with a confused and contradictory vision.
But the trick is that today is the constitutionally ordained 'day of reflection'- the day before elections- in which it is illegal to convoke any political act, to make any pronunciations that might alter the serene contemplation that precedes the consummation of the democratic act. That is to say, now that we know what has happened, it is illegal to call a press conference, for example, to denounce the fact that the government willfully concealed information about the authorship of the bombings.
For those that are wondering: in the end I too went to the demonstration yesterday. And of course, Eva, the most central thing that one felt in the demonstration was sorrow for the victims, solidarity for the families, outrage at random violence regardless of who perpetrates it. But I think you will admit that the mobilization of 11 million citizens two days before elections is not a politically indifferent question, and the terms in which this demonstration is convoked are relevant. In Barcelona, where the news of ETA's non-responsibility was released by the Catalan press, the otherwise silent and somber demonstration booed and hissed at Rato and Pique until they had to leave, accusing them of responsibility - or at least complicity - with the war in Iraq. A popular expression of sorrow and outrage which refused to lend that sorrow to legitimize political interpretations that they did not control.
Quite a different scene than Madrid, where we all found ourselves in the awkward situation of wanting to commemorate, wanting to mourn, wanting to express outrage, and having no place to do so that was not walking behind Aznar, Berlusconi and Prodi. And indeed in the demonstration there was everyone, people from every political and social orientation imaginable, all squished together under our umbrellas. Quite something. And most of us felt hushed both by the somberness of the occasion and the absence of any unifying analysis. But some did not feel hushed, some felt quite legitimized to introduce slogans into the crowd: the Falange (right next to us, at one moment), the campaign for the death penalty for ETA prisoners, groups of teenagers whose penetrating analysis was 'hijos de puta'. Again, who feels safe and legitimized to speak in public spaces - and who doesn't - is not irrelevant.
Anyway. Now today is reflection day, an otherwise excellent institution which under these circumstances is converted into a day of censorship and silencing. We know now who did it - or anyway, we know that it was not ETA but that spectre we call 'Al Qaeda' without really knowing what that means. We will see how this plays out in the short term in the Spanish elections tomorrow. But the big question of what this will mean for Europe and the global war, for already rampant islamophobia, for the whole European security apparatus... uf.
One more little point:
The compulsion of the PP to prove that ETA is responsible is not more revolting than the compulsion of the 'alternative' left to prove that it was AlQaeda. 'Todos somos palestinos' and everyone drinks Mecca Cola until there’s a bomb in Atocha and then, because everyone knows that if it is ETA then is a triumph for the PP, no one hesitates in pointing a very quick finger at 'the Arabs.' I realized that in my first message I didn't make clear that my disgust at both impulses is equal, just that one is so much more dominant here that to address it seems more urgent. Some of the debates on the Madrid indymedia page (http://acp.sindominio.net/article.pl?sid=04/03/11/1629222&mode=thread&threshold=0) are interesting (and often depressing) testimonies that the 'alternative' left is also fraught with its own dogmas.
13 March, 2004
quite a night here in madrid. its almost 4 in the morning, i have returned home because my body could take no more, but the streets are still full of people. this afternoon a spontaneous demonstration - no parties, no organizers - was convoked by word of mouth and SMS messages at the headquarters of the PP in Madrid at 6pm to denounce the systematic misinformation they have provided, proof of which was by then pouring from all different sources: international media, local leaks, etc. to our amazement, thousands showed up. and as the word spread, more and more and more kept showing up. and then they started to show up at all the headquarters of the PP all over the country. and from there, again by word of mouth and little paper messages passed through the crowd and SMS messages from phone to phone: cacerolada all over the city at 10pm. Gathering at the Plaza del Sol at midnight. And sure enough: at 10 the neighborhoods rang with pots and pans, at midnight there were perhaps 10,000 people gathered in Plaza del Sol. And from there, a spontaneous march to Atocha, more people joining all the time. And from there to the congress building. Unbelievable. Four in the morning the night before the elections and there we are in the street, tens of thousands of us, grannies and students, shouting at the congress building: what is happening? what does this mean? rumors that they have suspended the elections. the international press denouncing the PP. Al Qaeda claims the bombings. a police officer shot a man to death in Pamplona because he refused to put a 'ETA NO' sign in his shop window. the hunt for scapegoat muslims has begun in my neighborhood, several have been arrested. all the parties are embarrassingly sheepish, no one dares to demand anything until people are out there in the streets with their bodies on the line, and then the parties go trotting after.
i am too exhausted to make any kind of cogent analysis, but something big is afoot here. and within the general horribleness of everything and the generally bleak horizon before us, at least today we have had a chance to say what we needed to say. lets see what happens tomorrow.
love to you all
for those who can read spanish, the analyses coming out of indymedia are quite good: http://acp.sindominio.net
15 March, 2004
This morning dawned bright and fresh and springlike in Madrid, and almost despite oneself one has to admit that the air feels cleaner now that those rancid mustachios have been so resoundingly and humiliatingly forced out of power. I do not usually permit myself such elegizing, but I am very impressed by the people of this country for so decisively and overwhelmingly rejecting media spin and abuse of power, not only by forcing the PP out but also, in Catalonia, for massively supporting Esquerra Republicana, the party which only a week ago was being all but criminalized from all quarters.
Now let this not be taken as a great affirmation of the winning Socialist Party (PSOE), from whom we expect little real political change. We do not forget the enthusiasm with which they neo-liberalized Spain, the corruption scandals and the state-sponsored para-military groups of their previous administration. But certain things will be different: Spain will no longer be advocate, together with Italy and Poland, of a 'Christian Europe'. The coalition of the Azores is broken. The tone of the public media will change. In the public school curriculum there will be a little less glorious Reconquista and a little more multi-culti Al-Andalus. And the terribly important precedent is set that a country can, in the midst of the fear and uncertainty generated by terrorism, unseat the securitarian right wing. Bush and Berlusconi look out: whereas terrorism and the discourses that spring up around it have served again and again to reinforce ever more militarized, ever more centralized states of emergency, in this case, that interpretation has been overwhelmingly rejected. At least for now.
How did this happen? We are all still reeling.
On Friday were the massive demonstrations, sponsored by the government but not entirely docile to its intentions. Saturday, "day of reflection". All morning Saturday each person was sitting alone in her house in front of the television, suffocating with impotence, waiting for something to happen. Officially, the ETA hypothesis stood strong. Someone made little signs that said 'you have to speak English to know what’s happening in Spain' with a list of international websites and stuck them all over the city. Everyone was talking to their family members abroad, their friends in Catalonia or the Basque Country, everyone knew something was amiss and everyone was just waiting for the dam to break, for someone to say something in the public space. The opposition parties, silent. The news, nil.
Then in the afternoon the SMS message began to spread from friend to friend, "¿Aznar de rositas? Le llaman jornada de reflexion y Urdaci trabaja? Queremos saber la verdad. Hoy 13 marzo, a las 18h en la sede del PP, c/Genova 13. Sin partidos. Por la verdad." (Aznar getting away with it? They call it the day of reflection and Urdaci (the infamous PP-apointed director of the national public radio/television) is working? We want to know the truth. Today, March 13 at 6pm at the headquarters of the PP. No Parties. For the truth.) No one knows who started it, but it responded so clearly to what we were all waiting for that by 6.15 there were at least 5000 people concentrated there, despite the fear, despite the uncertainty, despite the disturbing news that a police officer had just shot a man in Pamplona to death for refusing to put an 'ETA NO' sign in his shop window. The word continued to spread and in a steady stream people continued to arrive. By 7pm a couple of socialist-oriented channels reported the gathering. In the crowd each person was in contact by mobile phone with friends in other places, and the news came to us item by item, then spread through the crowd: Cadena Ser reported the gathering and demanded the truth. Similar gatherings were appearing in other cities. The United Left party demanded the truth. Even the police made a statement demanding that the government reveal what it knew. At 8pm the Minister of the Interior announced that they had arrested five Muslims in the neighborhood of Lavapies, supposedly linked to the bombings. Meanwhile, the national public TV station changed its programming; instead of the scheduled 'Shakespeare in Love' they were showing (for the third time in a week) a docu-drama about a politician assassinated by ETA. The PP candidate, Mariano Rajoy, appeared on TV to denounce the demonstrations that were springing up all over the country as 'dangerous and subversive' and tried to equate our mobilization with terrorism, using language charged with the ghosts of Francoist emergency: imminent danger, extremism, etc. Those who lived through the dictatorship could easily recognize the genealogy of these statements, the threat implicit; to the younger generation they just seemed absurd.
But the cat was out of the bag, the demonstrations had burst the taut silence that had reigned all day. Suddenly the radio and the television were airing the statements of foreign journalists in Madrid about how the president's office had pressured them to maintain the ETA line, proofs of manipulation and cover-up were pouring in. Bouncing from mobile phone to mobile phone, all over the country, more initiatives: at 10pm a cacerolada, and at midnight in Puerta del Sol there were 10 or 15 thousand people gathered. It was difficult to balance the somber demand for truth in a time of mourning with the euphoria that the PP had finally overstepped its bounds, had finally really blown it, and that the people were not deceived and were not afraid to take the streets again. And it was satisfying to see that after a couple of years of being in the streets together so many times - for the general strike, against the Prestige disaster, in the many mobilizations against the invasion of Iraq - a certain collective intelligence has developed, a savoir faire and a trust in each other.
For me, as for many, there was little euphoria. That we were on the streets seemed to me the very least we could do; if we had not been in the streets that night it would have been impossible to breathe the air in Madrid. But beyond the immediate electoral question, the imminent fall of the PP, stretched the horizon: and if it was Al-Qaeda? Apart from the disgust at media manipulation, what inspired most of the demonstrators was the understanding that "the bombs you drop on Iraq explode in Madrid". This demonstration became an extension of the massive ones against the war last year, affirming the hypothesis that terrorism is a direct effect of foreign policy, that war is global and that the Atocha bombings were a response to Spanish participation in the occupation of Iraq. A resounding 'we told you so' to the government that got involved us in a war which 90% of the population opposed. While I share the opposition to the war and the conviction that terrorist activities and 'clash of civilizations' interpretations are only fed by the invasion and occupation of more-or-less unrelated countries, I can't help but feel that we don't understand what Al Qaeda is very well, we don't have good tools for thinking about how it works, and that our present almost visceral hypotheses are terribly inadequate. They may serve for the electoral moment, and they certainly serve to denounce a system of representation which permits a government to take actions opposed by such an enormous majority, but we had better get to work thinking this through because once the electoral fervor has passed we are going to have to deal with the fact that neither Spain nor any other country can be an island, that terrorist networks do indeed seem to exist and (unlike many Islamic movements) do not seem to be the anti-capitalist liberationist forces that some in the left might wish them to be, and that as crassly self-interested and inexcusable as this war in Iraq may be, a more complete response than mere pacifism is necessary. In short, there is no easy answer here, and even with the PP out of power there are 200 dead and a complicated road ahead: little room for euphoria.
Now, with the elections passed and the PSOE elected comes the evaluation of all of this. It could have gone a lot of other ways. All the pundits are now busy hypothesizing what would have been the electoral results had there been no bombings. The PSOE is trying to say that they would have won anyway, which I doubt. But I do think its important for the legitimacy of the PSOE government to insist that the vote was not simply a contingent effect of the PP betting high and losing, but of what their gamble revealed: a long term and systematic control of the media, inflation of citizen insecurity, and arrogant distain towards citizen participation. But what if all that had not been so dramatically and precipitously revealed? What if it had indeed been ETA? What if the government hadn't put all its chips on the ETA hypothesis, but had also developed a Bush-style discourse about the dangers of Islamic terrorism come home, of irrational bad-guys who act out of pathological evil rather than any coherent political reason? Unfortunately it is not difficult to play upon people's islamophobia; it might have worked for them. And now another 'what if' situation is circulating, I don't know if its true or not: apparently at midnight while the demonstrators were in the streets the government produced a document declaring a state of exception, deploying the military police and delaying the elections until the fall. This was the threat implicit in Rajoy's denunciation of the demonstrations. They took this document to the King to be signed and only when he refused were they forced to accept that the elections would go on as scheduled. Truth or monarchic propaganda? Hard to say. The clear thing is that our democracies are fragile.
But how fragile? The international (viz. US) press today is full of editorials about the danger that this set a precedent for terrorist attacks leading to electoral change. Will this encourage terrorist actions in the US this fall? I think that this is a misconception of the question. No one in Spain supported the war in Iraq, and if the electoral change leads to a withdrawal of troops, its because no one but Aznar wanted them there in the first place, not because terrorists blew up some trains. Without getting sanguine about electoral politics, this is exactly what democracy is supposed to do. I would even go one step further: this vote represents a defense of politics, real politics, questions of representation and participation, of free press, of social concerns, of the causes and effects of foreign policy, against the mechanisms of the state of emergency. Terrorism almost always serves the right wing because it can be used to erase politics, to instill fear, and to make ‘security’ – national security, not social security, not human security - the overwhelming and singular issue. With a little bit of optimism this vote can be read as a refusal to accept the abuse of people’s fear, an insistence upon a responsible press, an accountable government, and a vision of ‘security’ which includes people in Baghdad as well as people in Madrid, which acknowledges that my anxieties about how I will pay my rent and who will take care of me when I’m old are in fact substantially greater than my anxieties of terrorist attack.
Do we think the PSOE will provide all these things? No. Social movements will have to retain their autonomy and the powerful voice that civil society has been constructing in the last years, quite outside electoral politics. We were in the streets during the strike, during the war, we nurtured that autonomous culture of criticism which in this particular moment has served the PSOE but which has no allegiance to it. We have been developing the spaces (like social centers) and the tools (like the independent media) that facilitate critical and collective intelligence, and will continue to do so regardless of who is ruling. More than the triumph of electoral democracy and the possibility of a revolution within the system (as some are now saying), what the last days have shown us more than ever is the importance of citizen organization and participation that is NOT representative, that is NOT confined by the electoral interests of parties.
And we have our work cut out for us. Clearly the first major task is going to be a labor of love in our neighborhoods, producing potent anti-islamophobic and anti-xenophobic discourses before the lamentably predictable outcry against ‘Islam’ which is already beginning picks up speed.
From a Madrid that today smells a little less of cochinillo asado,