Five years ago to the day, Madrid was in shock.
The first horrifying images of the train bombings were just flickering onto television screens around the world and suddenly Europe was delivered a devastating reminder that the terrorism inspired by Osama bin Laden was a threat to Europe as well as America.
The simultaneous attacks on several commuter lines killed 191 people and wounded hundreds more. I was there that day and saw the wounded in the hospitals and the families grieving at the make-shift morgue in an industrial part of town — a country devastated.
I was also there in the days after to see Spain quickly descend into a bitter political divide over what had happened. And so today there is a complex mix of memory and desire, a somber remembrance of what happened and a thwarted desire to get past the bitter political fallout that came with it.
Spain has in many ways moved on from the trauma and the tragedy, but not necessarily from the tear in the political fabric of a confident and modern country with a then-booming economy.
The March 11, 2004 bombings landed on the eve of a parliamentary election. And before the bodies had even been buried, the ruling conservatives, whose leader, Jose Maria Aznar, had been a staunch supporter of President George W. Bush and the U.S.-led offensive in Iraq, were accused of playing politics with the national tragedy.
The theory was that then-Prime Minister Aznar sought to blame the attacks — in the face of contrary evidence — on Basque separatists. And the widely held albeit cynical view was that the conservative Popular Party did this to help its candidates in the polls and ultimately to hold on to power.
The days after the bombing and leading up to the election had the country roiling with a bitter political divide. When the truth came out that the attacks were the result of Islamic militants, mostly second-generation Moroccans who lived in Spain, the voting public shifted dramatically against the conservatives and the left-leaning Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero was brought to power.
For Spain, March 11 is a date that is in many ways synonymous with September 11.
But there is a profound difference from Americans in how the Spanish are remembering the anniversary. In Spain, there are few ceremonies marking the day. Where September 11th united Americans in purpose and in grief, March 11th left Spaniards politically divided.
And those political divisions remain, and the wounds are still raw.
Today our Madrid correspondents Michael Moffett and Cristina Mateo-Yanguas report that there was a moment of silence in Spain's parliament to remember those who lost their lives. Then, within moments, leaders of the governing Socialist Party and the more conservative opposition People’s Party faced-off over the headline-grabbing economic worries.
That left local leaders of Madrid’s town hall and regional seat — both governed by the People’s Party — to preside over a floral offering that opposition Socialists in the local government boycotted in protest over Madrid’s recent handling of an internal investigation into political espionage.
In other words, it was all right back to the same divide.
Reminders of further divisions were apparent, our correspondents report, in the vying ceremonies yesterday. The Socialists held one event while two separate victims’ groups made their own independent arrangements to mark the anniversary in Madrid and the working class suburbs where bombs exploded in the trains.
Many of the families seem to feel they just don't want to deal with the politics, not on a day like today.
The challenge that still lies ahead for Spain is to honor the dead and their families by finally laying to rest the bitter divisions over March 11 that have for too long over-shadowed the meaning of the tragedy that occurred that day.