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Europe’s Sept. 11

Daniel Barclay

Two and a half years after terrorists attacked the United States, another attack occurred in Spain last week. Terrorists of initially unknown identity brutally killed 200 innocent people in Madrid, in what many called “Europe’s Sept. 11.”

There’s always some peril in making sweeping analogies such as this due to confounding variables -- after all, September 11 was far more deadly, the Spanish government was credibly accused of misleading the public in a way that the American government was not, Spanish citizens had significant prior exposure to domestic terrorism, Spain is only one part of Europe, and so on. However, at the risk of symbolic overgeneralization, a comparison of the two cases seems apt.

First, the similarities. Both attacks were met by an outpouring of grief, outrage, and anger. Each populace felt unconditional hostility toward the terrorists and sympathy toward their victims. This was all well and good, demonstrating that the spectrum of human emotions transcends nationalities. It also showed that these emotions were sufficiently strong to be sustained even when they had no known perpetrator to direct themselves against -- for in each case, there was initial public uncertainty as to whether the terrorists were domestic (ETA, Oklahoma City types) or international (al-Qaeda).

Here is where the similarities end. In the days following Sept. 11, the confirmation that the terrorist perpetrators were international heightened Americans’ resolve to bring them to justice. No outsiders could bring America to its knees -- rather, there was a general determination that the attacks would make the country stronger, not weaker. With a united front, the United States expanded its presence abroad, eliminating the terrorists’ base in Afghanistan and heightening law enforcement operations, vowing never to let such a tragedy happen again.

The Spanish case played out quite differently. The discovery that international terrorists were responsible for the bombings also elicited public anger, but of a different kind -- anger at the peoples’ own government for aggressively confronting them, thus making Spain a “target.” In reaction, voters ousted the ruling Popular Party in favor of the opposition Socialists, a stunning ten-point swing in a matter of days. The message was clear: continue to maintain a hard line against domestic terrorism, but on international matters take a less confrontational approach. Spain was to keep a lower profile in fighting terrorism due to the attacks.

The implications of this divergence are grim, but not particularly new. They stem in large part from the very term “Europe’s Sept. 11,” as if the original Sept. 11 were insufficient to persuade much of Europe that the terrorist threat was serious. This is of course untrue. European nations, including Spain, have been steadfast in fighting terrorism, and no one should suggest otherwise. However, the intensity of this commitment has not matched that of the United States -- there are lingering, perhaps subconscious concerns that acting with too much gusto might stir up resentment, create more terrorism, or attract unwanted attention. It was these concerns at work this past week.

Prior to last week’s attacks, many had suggested that this discrepancy in commitment was due to a discrepancy in threat perception. Terrorists had attacked the United States, not Europe, so didn’t it stand to reason that Europe had less of an emotional stake in fighting terrorism? Fallout from the recent terrorism in Spain conclusively demonstrated that such reasoning is chimerical. Europe is not relatively quiescent about terrorists because they attacked a different locale -- for when they did get around to attacking Europe, the same mindset persisted. While the United States generally adopted a negative feedback mechanism, such that an increased terrorist threat increased citizens’ corresponding resolve and vice-versa, Europe generally followed the path of a positive feedback mechanism, where an increased threat of international terrorism led to less vigilance. The transatlantic divide was not temporary, but permanent.

The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 were truly epochal, upending existing attitudes and setting the terms of international relations for the next decade. The recent attacks in Spain, while similarly tragic, carry no such greater significance. They will become a footnote to history. For the causes of fighting terrorism, liberalizing the Middle East, and upholding transatlantic relations, that too is a tragedy.