Five Years After the Madrid Bombings

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The monument built in homage to the victims of the March 2004 train bombings in Atocha station in Madrid .

If the Sept. 11 attacks united, for a brief moment, the U.S.'s two political parties in patriotic determination, the March 11 attacks had exactly the opposite effect in Spain. It's been five years since Madrid awoke to the horror of the Atocha train bombings, and 18 months since Spain's national court tried and found guilty 21 people for participating in or abetting the attacks. But the breach the attacks opened in Spanish politics lingers.

The biggest terrorist attack on European soil left 191 dead, thousands injured, and a realization that the country was far more vulnerable than all but a few (mostly ignored) experts had recognized. But its longest-lasting repercussions were political: just three days after the attacks, while the governing Popular Party still insisted — despite growing evidence to the contrary — that the Basque terrorist group ETA, and not Islamist terrorists, were to blame, the country held national elections. In a surprise upset, the Socialist party, headed by José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, beat the conservative PP, which had been in power since 1996. (See pictures of the Madrid bombing.)

"The PP found it very difficult to accept their loss," says William Chislett, author of several books on Spain. "They thought the Socialists were able to 'rob' the election because of the bombings. And the Socialists think they won because the Spanish people realized that the PP — their government — wasn't telling them the truth."

Over the next four years, the breach widened. Zapatero's first move after taking office was to pull Spain's troops out of Iraq — a measure that was one of the major planks of his campaign platform, but which his opponents interpreted as capitulation to al-Qaeda's demands. In an effort to both clear its own name and, no doubt, undermine support for the Socialists, the PP continued to insist that ETA had a hand in the attacks, and that the government was covering it up. (See pictures of al-Qaeda.)

Over the course of Zapatero's first term, the PP requested that the government answer hundreds of questions about the alleged cover-up, while party leader Mariano Rajoy went so far as to suggest that a key piece of physical evidence — a backpack loaded with explosives — may have been planted in order to lend credence to the Islamist theory. These doubts were fanned by the center-right newspaper El Mundo, and Catholic radio station COPE into a full-fledged conspiracy campaign. Yet even after the country's national court found absolutely no connection between ETA and the Madrid attacks, Rajoy said that his party would "continue to support" any further investigation. The Socialists, in turn, responded by accusing the opposition of exploiting the victims for political gain.

"It had a huge political impact," says philosopher Fernando Savater, who in 2007 founded the centrist Union for Progress and Democracy party in an attempt to forge a third way between the two major parties. "Both the government and the opposition managed the attacks in partisan terms."

Many used the word crispación to describe the hostility between the two parties that prevented both civil discourse and legislative collaboration. On a lot of the issues that defined Zapatero's first term — gay marriage, the liberalization of divorce, civic education, compensation for victims of the Franco regime — it is unlikely that the conservative PP would have reached a compromise with the administration. But the ferocity of their protests suggested to many that more than ideological differences were in play. "Crispacíon was a tactical strategy," says former Socialist spokesman Diego López Garrido, today a deputy in the European parliament. "The PP used it to try and undermine the government, and win the next elections. It didn't work." (See pictures of Spain.)

After losing the 2008 elections, several prominent PP insiders — including Angel Acebes, who was Interior Minister at the time of the attacks and served as Secretary General in the four years that followed — resigned their offices, and the acrimony began to dissipate. And the Socialist measures that the opposition found so objectionable a few years ago? "All those changes — the law against domestic violence, gay marriage — the majority of Spaniards have accepted them," says Savater.

But one could argue that crispación did have a lasting impact in one arena: the question of ETA. When the group announced a permanent ceasefire in 2006, the PP initially, if tepidly, agreed to support the government's investigation into whether the separatists truly intended to abandon violence. But when the government began tentative talks with the group, the PP reverted to its rhetorical attacks, repeatedly accusing the government of "betrayal" and "negotiating with terrorists" and at one point, refusing for the first time in history to participate in a government-sponsored anti-ETA march. (Read a TIME story about ETA.)

At the time, some observers, such as sociologist and ETA specialist Ignacio Sanchéz-Cuenca saw the vitriol as "limiting Zapatero's room to maneuver" in the peace talks. The author Chislett agrees. "To get a deal with terrorists, you have to be able to bend the rules a little," he says. "Crispación meant that Zapatero couldn't do that. And the peace deal has gone out the window."

By all accounts, the political hostility that has its roots in March 11, 2004 has diminished significantly in the last few months, and the second Zapatero administration has managed to achieve some collaboration with the Popular Party on pressing economic matters. "Time is a healer," says Savater. "Things have lost their ferocity."

But that doesn't mean that everyone has abandoned the fight. On March 9, Pedro Ramírez, editor in chief of El Mundo, which has been the most vociferous proponent of the conspiracy theory, noted his paper was conducting an online poll that had so far found that 80% of respondents believed the attacks had not been sufficiently clarified. "It's one of the most important events in Spanish history and we still don't know what really happened and who contributed," Ramírez said. "It's still pending, and it's still affecting the public imagination."

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Read a TIME story about the Madrid bombing.