Rafael Escobedo is an associate professor of modern history at the Universidad de Navarra (Spain). He was a Berkley Center visiting researcher during the 2018-2019 academic year. Escobedo's research has focused on the attitudes and concerns of American Catholics towards Spain and Spanish Catholicism during Franco’s dictatorship (1939-1975). He has also published several papers on the role of public diplomacy in the Spanish-American relation during Franco’s rule, as well as about the situation of Spanish religious minorities. In 2015, he organized a conference in Pamplona, Spain, on religious freedom on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of the encyclical Dignitatis Humanae. Escobedo has been a Fulbright postdoctoral fellow at the University of Chicago, a visiting lecturer at the University of Piura (Peru), and an Erasmus exchange scholar at several European universities. Escobedo received his Ph.D. in history from the Universidad de Navarra in 2004.
I can remember very well where I was and what I was doing on September 11, 2001, as well as on March 11, 2004—exactly two years and half later, when Islamist terror attacked my own country, slaughtering 193 people and injuring hundreds more with several bombs in commuter trains in Madrid. And I can remember very well how each society responded to such an enormous national tragedy. I experienced first-hand American attitudes just a few weeks after the attacks. “United We Stand,” a slogan I saw everywhere on a wide range of formats, impressed me and made me think. The Spanish response was in many ways very similar to the American reaction. Police, firefighters, and emergency services acted bravely and professionally, common people tried to help as they could, and blood donation centers could hardly handle the crowds of donors. However, while Americans remained united and strengthened their spirit, Spaniards became bitterly divided. Why?
Although the terrorists slightly differed in their intentions for each attack, both groups were primarily motivated by an intense feeling of hate towards the West. Jihadists hate us even more than they love themselves or their children. They would destroy us, but they know that they cannot. Instead, they hit us, enjoying the provocation of the ensuing suffering. And, worst of all, they believe they are righteous by so doing. This is the basic framework of the wide array of Islamist terrorism from which the West has suffered for decades.
While both attacks were designed to incite wide-spread fear and panic, each was also planned with specific goals in mind. The 9/11 terrorists clearly wanted to hit some of the most iconic materializations of American might: the economic power of the World Trade Center, the military power of the Pentagon and, probably too, the political power of the White House or the Capitol. The 2015 Paris attacks were a no less iconic assault on our Western lifestyle. Terrorists usually choose carefully their targets, locations, and times. In both the 9/11 attacks and the Madrid bombings, time was an important part of the terrorist plot. Osama bin Laden planned 9/11 as a great show—as the greatest show ever seen on TV. Therefore, he not only chose the most spectacular stage imaginable, but timed the attacks to awe a worldwide TV audience. The first plane was the bait, keeping me and millions worldwide glued to the TV only to witness the second crash live. Bin Laden and Al-Qaeda brought the old anarchist notion of “propaganda by the deed” to its evilest perfection. Timing was also crucial to 3/11 but in a very different way.
The Madrid bombs exploded on a Thursday. General elections were to be held the following Sunday. According to opinion polls, the ruling Conservative Party was set to achieve a comfortable victory. But three days later, the Socialist candidate won the elections. What happened? Did the attacks so decisively change the Spanish vote? Did the terrorists intend this to happen? Immediately after the explosions, nobody blamed Muslims but rather Basques. The far-left separatist terrorist group ETA had been struggling for Basque independence by extorting, kidnapping, or assassinating anyone who they considered “enemies of the Basque people,” from members of the military and policemen to local politicians and journalists who critiqued Basque nationalism. ETA did not usually attack the public indiscriminately. In early 2004, however, ETA was almost defeated, cornered by police after years of corruption and declining popular support. They were becoming increasingly desperate. For example, an ETA van with 110 pounds of explosives bound for one of the main train stations in Madrid was luckily intercepted in December 2003. Unsurprisingly, many Spaniards blamed ETA during the first hours after the 3/11 attacks. As early evidence pointed to jihadism began to appear, the police started to investigate both hypotheses. On March 12, millions mourned in massive street demonstrations, but some started to voice criticism of the government. They accused the government of concealing information pointing to Islamist responsibility for the attacks, ultimately blaming Prime Minister José María Aznar for the massacre, which was eventually understood as a vengeance for the Spanish support of the American war in Iraq.
In the days following 3/11, how many Spaniards decided that Aznar was responsible for bringing home Islamic terror? How many saw it better to vote for the candidate who had staunchly opposed the Iraq War and proposed withdrawing all political support of George W. Bush? How many voted for the Socialists, even though originally unconvinced by the party’s antiwar position? And how many voted out of fear? As many Conservatives, feeling as though the terrorists worked in favor of the Socialists, fed conspiracy theories, the Madrid bombings not only killed our people and broke our hearts, but also sowed discord among us.