Anthropology News, Vol.45, nº5, May 2004

Terrorism and Spanish Democracy

Susan M DiGiacomo

Fundació Sant Joan de Déu, Barcelona

U Massachusetts at Amherst


On the morning of Thursday, March 11, 2004, Terrorist planted a dozen backpacks bombs on four different trains as they approached Madrid’s Atocha railway station, and detonated them simultaneously. The carnage was appalling; 190 people were killed immediately, and over 1400 were wounded. Some of the injured died later, and many are still hospitalized.




Anthropology, with its focus on durable structures and stable patterns, can find itself at a loss to interpret rapidly unfurling events. We generally categorize these events as “news” rather than “culture,” and leave them to de journalists. Following Liisa Malkki’s work on transitory phenomena and alternative models of anthropological practice, I want to explain what happened here in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy. I write from Barcelona, the capital of the autonomous community of Catalonia, where I now live and work, and where  I have done ethnographic research on political life since  1977, the year of the first democratic elections in Spain since 1936. The traditional distinction between “the field” as a site of cultural difference where data is collected, and “home” as a place where the ethnography is “written up” is, therefore, unsustainable for me, and with the discourse of objectivity rests. In its place I take as my point of departure the situated-ness of anthropological knowledge, and the anthropologist’s positioned subjectivity. This essay is an act of witness, testimony produced from my position not only in a particular location, but also within what Malkki has termed an “ accidental community of memory.”


The bombing of March 11 is the worst such attack ever carried out in a European country, and its emotional impact is comparable to that of the attacks of September 11, 2001, in the US. There is, however, a critically important difference. Only a year ago, José María Aznar, then Spanish prime minister and leader of the right-wing Partido Popular, became a member of the “coalition of the willing” that invaded Iraq and plunged that country into a chaos from which it has yet to emerge. Public opinion was solidity against him; as much as 90% of the population was opposed to both American intervention and to Spanish involvement in Iraq. Anti-war demonstrations mobilized millions of people all  over Spain.

Despite the absence of evidence, the Spanish government announced that ETA, an organization that continues to use violence as the means to  Basque independence, was responsible for the bombing. This claim suited the Partido Popular’s political needs perfectly. With a general election only three days away, an attack linked to the presence of Spanish troops in Iraq would have undermined its credibility and reinforced anti-war sentiment. Repeatedly over the following two dais, the government not only downplayed growing evidence pointing to Al Qaeda, but used its institutional authority to muddy the waters, even going so far as to delay investigation of Al Qaeda involvement.


In the hours following the attacks Spanish civil society mobilized quickly. Hundreds of people stood in line for hours to donate blood, and on Friday people took to the streets in the millions, placing solidarity with the victims ahead of their misgivings about the reliability of official sources . By Saturday there was generalized suspicion that the central government was withholding information and manipulating the outpouring of grief for rapid mobilization that made the Friday march possible brought together thousands of people, summoned by mobile telephone and word of mouth, to bang pots and pans (as they had also done to protest the Iraq war) and demand the truth in front of the Partido Popular headquarters. In Barcelona, the main thoroughfare close to my apartment was clogged for hours with motorists honking theirs horns. These were not isolated events; people elsewhere in Barcelona, in Madrid, and in cities and towns all over Spain  were protesting as well.


I followed the crowd. Lots of young people came, but also many respectable, middle-aged, middle-class people, and their outrage was directed not only at government manipulation of information, but at terrorism in any form and the previous eight years of what has come to be called “Aznarism”: the Irak war, the appallingly bad management of the Prestige oil spill, an ecologically disastrous hydrologic policy, and the criminalization of democratically expressed dissent. There were Catalan flags, both the official version (four red bars on a gold field, some with a black ribbon pinned-to the center in mourning for the victims in Madrid) and the independence flag, with a triangular blue field and single white star on the left. The tricolor flag of the Second Republic (1931-1939) was there as well. The crowd chanted “sons of Franco!”- a far worse insult than “sons of bitches!”- at the shuttered doors and windows of the PP headquarters, and at the police in riot gear arrayed in front of it.


The price of the transition to democracy had been collective political amnesia. The dictatorship was referred to antiseptically as “the previous regime,” and the graves of  unquiet dead were left undisturbed. But that night, people remembered: a year ago, two years ago, all the way back to the 1977, when rallies were not allowed to begin until all republican flags has been folded away; arguably as far back as the Civil War and the long fascist siege of Madrid in which so many civilians died. The traces left behind by the shared experience of resistance in many contexts and forms welded the demonstrators into an “accidental community of memory” with a common will. By 1 am on election day, the government had no choice but to release the content of a videotaped Al Qaeda communiqué claiming responsibility for the bombing. A few hours later, voters began going to the polls in historically record numbers, and defeated the party that had so flagrantly abused its power. People in sorrow and anger can transform the political landscape; a spontaneous act of collective civic responsibility reasserted democracy in Spain.


Susan M DiGiacomo had studied language ideology and discourse of nationalism since 1977.