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Dignity and stoicism: the Spanish people in the wake of Europe's 9-11

By Judith Keene - posted Monday, 22 March 2004

In the great welter of confusion in the aftermath of the bombing in Madrid last Thursday, the 200 dead and 1500 injured, there were several things that were very striking. The first, of course, was the unerring evilness of the action.

Massive bombs had been placed on four early-morning commuter trains, two of which had reached their destination of Atocha station in the city. The other two, at El Pozo and Santa Eugenia, were on trains that had just begun the run into the city from the outlying suburbs where the lines begin.

These sites were chosen to cause maximum damage. Atocha is the main railway hub in Madrid, serving the same function as Central Railway in Sydney. It is also near the Modern Art Museum, La Reina Sofia, and in walking distance of the Prado, the Plaza Mayor and the Puerta del Sol, the historic centres of Old Madrid.


In the past years, what had been a down-at-heel station has been done up with a glass roof and indoor trees and now sports smart cafes and shops. It is a place that is always busy.

The timing was also striking. In a nation that rises late, those injured at 7.30am were the first wave in the day's commuters. Ordinary working people, they included, as the reports noted, a good sprinkling of immigrants, Peruvians, Ecuadoreans, Argentinians.

These are the workers whose days start first. They leave home early to get to the city to open up the office, to empty the bins, or to clear up and mind the children of those who arrive later at work.

With the exception of a vote in the elections, they are not people whose opinions are sought. Nor does what they think exercise great sway, except perhaps chatting on the stairs with the neighbour or at the local bar.

It was these unlikely victims that led many commentators to reject the possibility of ETA behind the attacks. Batasuna, the electoral arm of ETA, denied that ETA had ever targeted workers. In the past, ETA's modus operandi most usually has been directed at state officials: judges, policemen and members of regional and national political assemblies.

Previously, too, ETA, has always claimed its horrible handiwork with a view to demonstrating its strength versus that of the central Spanish state.


The second remarkable thing about these terrible acts was the stoic response to them by Spaniards across the nation. At midday on Thursday, the day of the bombings, Madrid Radio reported that Plaza Mayor and Puerta del Sol, normally teeming with noise and people, were quiet as befitted a city and a nation in shock.

The next day, however, by 6pm the streets were filled with people. In Madrid 2 million, according to police, crowded along the great Castellana, the central artery and around Atocha. The royal family, the prime minister and the Socialist leader of the opposition came.

But it was not the official presence which was so riveting. It was the demeanour of the people.

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Article edited by Eliza Brown.
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This article was previously published in the Sydney Morning Herald on 16 March 2004.

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About the Author

Judith Keene is the director of the European Studies Centre at the University of Sydney and is an expert in 20th-century Spanish history.

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