National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
World -- First Person
Issue Date:  March 26, 2004

-- Reuters/Jose Manuel Ribeiro

In front of Madrid's El Pozo railway station March 12, a man lights mourning candles for victims of the March 11 bomb attacks.
Spain grieves for its 3/11

'It was their finest hour'

Palma de Majorca, Spain

I knew there was something wrong when my spiritual director was late for our meeting.

He arrived in the waiting room of the rectory, his eyes unusually anxious, gray face on white beard.

“Have you heard the news?” he asked as he used the small table in the corner to steady himself.


It was Thursday morning, March 11, and I was in Spain.

He sat down and proceeded to tell me about the bombings in Madrid. The light had gone out of his eyes.

And for a few hours it seemed as if the life had gone out of the country. I was not in Madrid but rather hundreds of miles away on the ancient island of Majorca, in the port city of Palma.

The summer heat has not yet arrived and on that Thursday people seemed to shiver in the buses. They huddled together in small groups in the cafés and bars. They walked along the streets and alleys, looking down and far away.

The evening Masses in the old city of Palma were unusually full that day. In the medieval church of St. Nicolas, many young people arrived to light candles and sat silently with their heads in their hands as the old women chanted the rosary.

I had been to Spain many times before, enchanted by the intensity not only of its light and geography but also of its mystics and saints. However, at a certain point several years ago, I began to feel uncomfortable with what I saw as its preoccupation -- even fascination -- with death and suffering. The Sangre de Cristo, crucifixes everywhere, the bullfights, the Valley of the Fallen and the memory of the civil war everywhere etched across the landscape.

On Thursday, March 11, the crucifixes with the bloodied and dying Christ seemed more than appropriate.

In the city of Palma, candles and flowers began to appear in the plazas and at the train station. There is now a ritual of mourning for the victims of terrorism.

One Spanish newspaper described this as an inmense dolor, a great ache, a great suffering, that came down on the people and threatened to overwhelm them.

No one was sure, on Thursday, who had executed this massacre. It was an immense massacre, given the size of the country: 200 dead, 1,500 wounded. It was the largest massacre in Europe since the end of World War II.

However, the Spanish people did know that those who were killed were among the most poor and vulnerable, those who lived in the suburbs because they could not afford to live in Madrid: immigrant workers from Latin America and Eastern Europe, single moms, students.

Beyond the pain, there was anger. Basta, enough, some yelled. Asesinos and hijos de puta (sons of bitches) screamed others.

The government had almost immediately pointed the finger at ETA, the Basque separatist guerrillas, who had taken extreme action in the past to promote their cause.

Already people were talking about this as Europe’s 9/11. Indeed, The New York Times wrote that it “would not be inappropriate” to do so.

And yet. Friday dawned, overcast, the rain clouds gathering. The government had called for the people to demonstrate against terrorism by standing in silence for five minutes at noon and by gathering in demonstration at 7 p.m.

I was walking along one of the main streets of Palma at noon on Friday, hundreds of miles from Madrid. The traffic stopped. Cab drivers and their passengers got out of their cars. People stood up in the outdoor cafés. The five minutes seemed unbearably long. I wondered if these people would ever move again. The threat of yet more bombings hung in the air.

They did begin to move. How they moved! So swiftly and so surely. By 6 p.m., people were streaming towards the Plaza d’Espanya near the train station of Palma. Even my spiritual director took up his cane and hop-alonged his way to join the gathering crowd. Half of this city of 300,000 joined together in the manifestación and began to walk silently through the streets.

As it was here, so it was elsewhere throughout Spain. There was no flag-waving, there were only a few shouts of anger. There was only silence. There were only candles in the dark and umbrellas raised against the falling rain.

And there were people. Sick at heart, angry yet determined, they came in their millions across the country.

-- AFP/Pedro Armestre

A woman cries as she observes a minute of silence March 12 at El Pozo train station in memory of the victims of the near-simultaneous explosions on four trains the previous day in Madrid.

Even the mayor of Barcelona, in the rebellious and restive region of Catalonia, echoed what was said everywhere in Spain that night -- somos todos madrilenos, we are all people of Madrid.

The banners held in the demonstration at Palma were similar to those carried in Madrid and elsewhere: “We were all on that train,” “No to terrorism. Yes to peace and justice,” “Peace and truth.”

Old and young, they walked because they knew terrorism was too important to be left to the government alone.

It was an awesome display of civil courage and public power. The ache of Thursday, March 11, had not dissipated but the paralyzing power of evil had been broken.

It was their finest hour.

That public power rose again on that Sunday when the people went to the polls and voted out the government that had been in power for eight years. They voted out a government that had led in a time of economic prosperity and had been successful in bringing many ETA terrorists to ground. It was also a government that had supported the American-led war in Iraq over the wishes of 90 percent of its people.

On Sunday morning, the newspapers reported that the police had made arrests, which moved the blame for the bombings more in the direction of a radical Islamic group.

The people of Spain walked to the polls, 77 percent of the eligible voters, and voted against a government that had manipulated the massacre for political gain, a government that had lied.

Comparisons with 9/11 in New York are inevitable. The parallels cannot be drawn too closely, but it can be said that both massacres are of historic and even spiritual significance.

However, it is the response to the inmense dolor that has left me wondering. What would have happened if a quarter of the population of the United States had risen in solidarity throughout the country the day after 9/11? I doubt we would still be ruled by a government playing the politics of fear.

The shock of an immense and surprising attack seemed much more paralyzing in the United States than in Spain. Why? It surely isn’t because of the number of dead or the extent of the damage -- given the differences in the size of the two countries.

It has a little to do with leadership. Immediately after the attack in Madrid, members of the royal family and various levels of government went immediately to the hospitals and makeshift morgue. King Juan Carlos I, who had single-handedly averted a military coup years before, appeared that day on television. He spoke strongly but serenely, saying that terrorists would be brought to justice but in a way that respected the constitution and human rights. (An important statement, given the concerns of human rights workers that torture has become more frequent in Spanish jails.)

However, the differing responses in America and Spain have a lot to do with history. Americans were paralyzed after 9/11, I think, because it was the first time the American empire seemed mortal, vulnerable to attack on its own soil. The barbarians were not only at the gates, they were inside.

The Spaniards know their own history and its bitter lessons. They have learned what it means to build an empire, its greatness bought at great cost on the part of those in its colonies. They know too that their empire fell long ago. They have fresh memories of a bitter civil war in which countless thousands were killed, tortured, executed. Since the time of the dictatorship of Franco, they understand that democracy is a daily struggle and a fragile achievement. They know it can never be taken for granted.

In his description of the North American context, theologian Douglas John Hall (in his Thinking the Faith: Christian Theology in a North American Context) refers to the inherent optimism of America as the greatest obstacle for developing an appropriate Christian response in this time and in this place.

Many Americans, he says, continue to believe that they are basically innocent and good, as good as apple pie and Little League games. Whatever wrong we may do as a nation is considered to be an aberration that can be corrected. We are under the illusion that we can exercise great power and still be good.

The Spanish are under no such illusions. They are no longer a great nation with a great empire. They know they have done wrong, to those in other countries and among themselves. And they want to be good.

And they know this will be a daily struggle, demanding daily vigilance and the willingness to walk and to talk and perhaps more.

On election day, I went to Sunday Mass in a middle class suburb of Palma. It was the children’s Mass and the priest entered into dialogue with them. “Usually we come here to celebrate but today it is more difficult.”

“Because of Madrid,” said one little girl.

“Yes, it was a day of great violence,” the priest commented. “But there is violence all around us even here.”

The little hands shot up:

“On the TV.”

“In the soccer games.”

“In the school when the big guys beat up the smaller ones.”

“Yes,” said the priest. “And there is violence in war and there is violence when we take advantage of the poor and violence when we don’t look at someone because he or she has a different skin color.”

He looked at the children carefully. “Every day you can help to make peace because everyday you live in a culture of violence.”

Mary Jo Leddy, a member of the Romero House community in Toronto, is the author of Radical Gratitude.

National Catholic Reporter, March 26, 2004

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