Rosa Maria Artal,
11M-14M Onda Expansiva
(Espejo de Tinta, 2004)

Spain's "11M" happened approximately 1,000 days, precisely two-and-a-half years, after the terrible events of September 11 in the United States. The two tragedies share some striking similarities. The Madrid train bombings were planned and carried out in a manner similar to 9/11. In both cases, the victims were simply working people going about their daily lives, caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. And both attacks shocked not only the communities affected by them, but the world at large.

In her book 11M-14M Onda Expansiva ("Shock Wave"), Rosa Maria Artal examines the March 11 commuter train attacks and their direct aftermath, the three days leading up to March 14 and the election of the Zapatero Socialist Workers Party (PSOE) to government. The election shocked the world and broke up the Bush alliance on Iraq.

Artal closely chronicles the reaction of local and global media as the events unfolded and information was revealed, with a day-by-day analysis of who reported what and when. She investigates the myths and realities of what actually happened -- who knew what and when they knew it.

What we do know is this: the Popular Party (PP) lost control of Spain's government on March 14, largely because many believed they lied about who the perpetrators were. (Artal neatly debunks the ludicrous North American myth about Spain giving in to terrorism.)

Certainly, on March 11, the Spanish government insisted, through its embassies and a compliant media, that the Basque separatist group ETA was responsible for the attacks. Whether Spain's rulers actually believed this or deliberately misled the world is still unknown. However, anyone with the slightest knowledge of Spanish and Basque history or European security issues would have been skeptical of this conclusion (as were the head of the European security agency, a prominent Basque studies scholar in the U.S., and this reviewer), even as the first hazy details of the bombings were revealed.

As a result, the United Nations was fooled into a hasty, unprecedented and ultimately incorrect resolution condemning the Basque group. This embarrassment has yet to fade. George Bush also continued to blame ETA for the acts, even though his advisers must have known otherwise, an odd gesture that deliberately shielded Al Qaida from blame.

Only the Batasuna political party (banned in the Spanish Basque country but not the French Basque provinces, and presumed by some to speak on behalf of ETA) was quick to point to Islamic militants as the responsible group. One or more shadowy factions of Islamic origin did claim responsibility, but both governments and the acquiescent media did not give this information any credence.

Artal, unfortunately, fails to remark on the irony that the truth was actually coming from the banned political party, while the government was feeding false information to the public. Yet according to Artal, there was media manipulation on both sides. While some media continued to parrot the government's "ETA-did-it" line (even after a van with Quran tapes in Arabic was found at the scene -- unusual listening material for Basques), other media pounded away at an apparent government cover-up, using unsubstantiated material in some cases.

Artal is equally critical of both sides of the media -- those who fail to filter the government line, and those who attack without proper foundation. (Similar, of course, to criticism leveled at media in the U.S. and U.K.) But even in doing this, Artal seemingly lets the Aznar government off the hook.

Furthermore, Artal's centralist bias shows through on more than one occasion. Though she mentions the serious issue of racist attacks against Spaniards of Islamic origin after the bombing, she fails to note that Basque prisoners held in Spain were assaulted because of the misidentification of ETA as the perpetrators.

The moral: in deciphering the media, people should know their history and trust their instincts. Know the speaker and their biases, and know each media outlet's biases too. This book also serves as a heads-up for politicians -- lies do have unexpected consequences.

11M-14M Onda Expansiva is a good overview of three days that changed Spain, written simply and directly, if limited in scope. Since it focuses more on media reports than on actual people, it lacks the historical perspective of more than a month, and so far, it is available in Spanish only.

- Rambles
written by David Cox
published 20 November 2004