Throughout the day I've been reading everyone from right wing warfloggers to anti-war liberals who argue that the outcome of the elections in Spain following the terrorist bombings in Madrid three days before somehow represents a victory for Al Qaeda. I don't see it. The main line of reasoning seems to be that the sudden reversal in fortunes of the incumbent party, which had supported the American invasion of Iraq, demonstrates to the terrorists that they can affect the outcome of elections, that they can have a significant impact on world events.
But they already knew that. In the aftermath of the attacks of 9/11, two countries have been invaded, the international community has been polarized, and the most powerful nation in the world has curtailed the civil liberties of its own citizens in an unprecedented fashion (even if we have reason to believe some of these things were the result of cynical opportunism in disguise). Even if much of the time it seems that Afghanistan has fallen off the radar, Iraq is in the news daily and has been for over a year. The terrorists hardly needed to attack Spain to confirm for themselves that they had been noticed.
And the implication that the Spaniards voted as they did out of fear seems wrong-headed too. In a way 9/11 represented a loss of innocence for Americans - it was the first time that international terrorism had struck seriously on American soil. But I think it's a mistake to project American reactions on to Europeans who have lived with not just the threat but the fact of terrorism for decades.
As William Rivers Pitt reminds us, it was only a matter of two days before the Spaniards were almost literally banging on the government's door demanding to know what their government knew about who had really committed these crimes. And by all accounts the election itself saw surprisingly high turn-out. That doesn't sound like a people cowering in their homes afraid of the next attack. It sounds like a people who were angry and defiant, a people demanding answers and demanding justice.
A governing party that had repudiated the wishes of its own electorate in joining the Coalition was itself repudiated. The voters felt that their leaders were playing politics with the fight against terrorism and they made it clear that was unacceptable. That sounds like a victory for democracy to me. As for the new governing party, it has already committed to fight terrorism but to do it in a more intelligent and self-critical manner. It has also shown a willingness to speak truth to power.
"The war in Iraq was a huge disaster, the occupation continues to be a huge disaster," said Zapatero on Spanish radio. "It only generated more violence and hatred and the lesson has to be taken."And now the wider European community has been galvanized to take it's own approach to the fight, perhaps repudiating, or at least not waiting on, the American leadership that appears to have stumbled so badly. Just maybe, in the process, they'll begin to ask some of the difficult questions that have been glossed over in Bush's simplistic "they hate our freedoms" rhetoric. It isn't all clear sailing from here. The danger itself persists, along with the danger that civil liberties will be threatened and that a backlash against immigrants, and particularly against Muslims, will occur. But if the Spaniards and the rest of Europe have watched and learned from the Americans there's reason to hope that they'll find a better way.
The bombers in Madrid achieved their immediate goal: to spread death, destruction and terror. But given the behaviour of the Spanish people and the outcome of the election, I fail to see how it represents much in the way of a larger victory, be it strategic, moral or symbolic. Even if the defeat of the incumbent Spanish government was what the terrorists wanted, I'd submit that even terrorists can get one wrong now and then.