March 15, 2004

Flags at Half-Mast in Belgravia

Touching back down in London today I got in a cab at Heathrow and gave the cabbie my address. He paused and said "oh yes, that's near the Spanish Embassy."

Distracted and tired, I replied "yes, but it's even closer to the German Embassy," just to make sure he knew exactly where we were headed.

A couple seconds later, I suddenly realized what he meant and we talked about memorials that had taken place at the Embassy since 11-M.

Later, walking to my office in Mayfair I strolled by the Embassy (it's a stone's throw from my apartment) on Belgrave Square.

A guard solemnly stood in front of the Embassy, gate open, so that individuals could place flowers at the front door.

Across the street from the Embassy, dangling off the gates of the Belgrave Square gardens, a white sheet with some illegible, from afar, scribblings.

So I walked over to take a closer look.

A series of numbers on a white sheet.

1. 2. 3. 4. 5. 6. 7. 8. 9. 10.

And so on. Number by number.

All the way to 198. 199.

And then, "200..."

The last figure, scrawled by what appeared to be another hand than the previous numbers, and in a different colored marker, with three dots indicating the number would likely go up still more. [UPDATE: It's 201, now].

It had become an interactive memorial, of sorts, and my mind flashed back to Union Square during the weeks after 9/11.

Further about Belgrave Square, most Embassies were flying their flag at half-mast in solidarity with Spain.

A country that had just suffered a heavy blow indeed.

The population of Spain is about 40 million, about 1/7th of the population of the United States.

That would mean 11-M, with its 200 fatalities, would equal approximately 1,400 dead.

And, again proportionally, approximately 10,500 wounded (9/11, a massive crematorium of sorts, was too apocalpytic in nature to allow for wounded).

Make no mistake, this was a big one.

Its impact in terms of lives lost and shattered, of course, enormous.

But, beyond that, al-Qaeda (if they indeed committed this cowardly slaughter) timed this attack particularly well in terms of turning an American ally's party out of power.

The Depressing Election

Of course, one is depressed to see the Spanish voters punish Aznar's party.

Bush, Blair and Aznar didn't instruct their agents to call bomb-rigged cell phones so that scores of innocents would be felled.

Al-Qaeda did.

But Spanish voters didn't buy into that reality.

Their rationale, instead, was encapsulated by one female protestor who held up a picture of the Azores summit--with Bush, Blair and Aznar pictured strolling to (or from?) podiums.

She had added a caption: "Was this picture worth 200 lives"?

Many of us are frustrated with this mentality. But these sentiments, sadly, tipped the election.

With hindsight, I believe Aznar's government made a mistake the day of the attacks with their strong statements that ETA had almost certainly been responsible for the attack.

It would have been better if they had said that it might be ETA, it might be al-Qaeda, it might be yet another group--and that the investigation would proceed with utmost vigor and transparency.

But, and this before election night, Spain's Interior Minister promptly announced the detention of Moroccan and Indian (ostensibly Muslim Indian) suspects.

This certainly wasn't information that would bolster the ETA theory.

But the government nevertheless publicized it speedily.

So I think it's unfair to say, as Juan Cole does (when not smearing neo-cons as fascists) that Aznar, in Francoist fashion, manipulated information.

Al-Qaeda's Coup

But these are all somewhat moot debates.

Significant numbers of the Spanish public calculated that, had Aznar not gone into Iraq, 200 Spaniards would still be alive today.

Enough reason, with an alleged governmental cover-up thrown in to boot, to turn out Aznar's party.

And cause glee amidst the theocratic barbarians of al-Qaeda who will relish their first ever decisive impact on the elections of a major European nation-state.

And quietly mock the naivete of the aggrieved Spaniards who believe, for instance, that France and Germany are not on the terrorist radar because they weren't involved in the Iraq war.

After all, did Turkey fight in Iraq? Did Morocco? Did Saudi Arabia?

But these queries didn't detain Spanish voters who instead chose a policy of isolation and appeasement.

A depressing day, indeed.

Any silver linings?

The Socialists might not, for sure, pull out the 1,300 Spanish troops out of Iraq on June 30th.

There is a window of opportunity and diplomatic wriggle room. Should the U.N. role be materially more significant by June, and sovereignty return to Iraqis--Spanish forces might stay in Iraq--the new PM appears to be signalling.

But, at least today, this is pretty thin gruel indeed.

Posted by Gregory at March 15, 2004 09:53 PM
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