Death in Spain

March 12, 2004

WHO CAN FATHOM the dark corner of the human heart that could conceive of the series of bombings on Spanish trains yesterday? Somewhere, at this moment, the sponsors of these attacks, which killed more than 190 early-risers on their way to work, are undoubtedly finding satisfaction in their success - and how can that be?

Spaniards are asking themselves the same questions that Americans faced after 9/11. President Bush expressed his nation's sympathy for the Spanish people yesterday, and appropriately so. In a very real and wrenching way, there is a solidarity among countries that have gone through the horror of mass murder.

And yet, today and in the days to come, what should matter most to Spain is not the fact of "evil," or the existence of the worldwide "war on terror," but the actual details of what happened. The Spanish government was quick to blame Basque separatists, until reports began to suggest an al-Qaida link instead. Naturally, it matters a great deal who the perpetrators were. All terror is local; the specifics are important.

Why make this obvious point? Because too often, politicians, especially American politicians, choose not to make it. For 30 months now, people in the United States have been treated to altogether too much big-picture rhetoric: the global struggle against terror, an administration led by a wartime president. Some on the fringes of power have warned darkly of an impending clash between Muslim and Western civilizations. A reminder: Sept. 11, 2001, was carried out by a group called al-Qaida, led by a man named Osama bin Laden. Probably fewer than 100 people had a hand in it.

Yesterday's attacks in Spain were not the work of nameless international terror. If Basque separatists were behind them, then they are not an excuse for whipping up anger and dread toward the Muslim world. If al-Qaida was responsible, then al-Qaida is the appropriate target - not a nation, not a civilization, not a religion.

The advantage for those who engage in loose talk about a war on terror is that "terror" is so amorphous. In the wake of Sept. 11, President Bush labeled Saddam Hussein a terrorist sponsor, and today, U.S. troops are in Baghdad. Saddam Hussein, as it happens, was not linked to Sept. 11 - and Iraq today may be more hospitable to terrorists than it was when he was in power.

Nations that unite to counteract terror need to be clear-eyed. Thoughtlessly lumping all enemies together leads to jumbled priorities; while the United States, for example, has occupied Iraq, at great cost, al-Qaida is still on the loose. It also tends to make a reality of the rhetoric; Russia was so intent on crushing what it insisted was Islamic extremism in Chechnya that eventually the Chechen separatists turned to Islamic extremists for help.

Spain has suffered a grievous wound. It deserves our understanding and support, but what Spain needs more than anything is an understanding of the facts - and then a resolve to act on those facts.

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