FOR THE FIRST TIME since September 11, 2001, terrorists have struck the West in a spectacular way, murdering (at last count) 199 innocents and injuring a thousand others with a dozen bombs planted in Madrid's commuter-rail system at rush hour, three days before national elections. The first reaction of the civilized world should be to remember and mourn the dead, with mourning understood to include bringing to justice the barbarians who killed them.
But the second should be to correct the misimpression that has led many in the European press to refer to the event as "Spain's September 11." No European who mourned New York's dead after September 11--nor any grateful American--will need to be reminded that Spain deserves the special solicitude of its allies in the moment of its loss and disruption.
But the idea that the carnage of March 11 can by any stretch of the imagination be called a "Spanish problem" strikes us as false. It is the problem of all the civilized world's democratic republics and constitutional monarchies. Pat Cox, the president of the European parliament, is correct to call the Madrid attacks a "declaration of war on democracy." So is Le Monde to insist on its front page that "it is Europe and democracy that were attacked in Madrid."
At this writing, it is unclear whether the bombing was perpetrated by al Qaeda (as the simultaneity, the discovery of detonators and Arabic tapes at the trains' point of departure, and a questionable claim of credit posted to a London newspaper would indicate) or by the Basque terrorist group ETA (as earlier election-season threats at first led Spaniards to believe), or by some combination of the two. But the meaning of the attack does not depend on the identity--that is, the particular psychopathology--of the killers behind it. It is the civilized world that will provide the meanings here.
Having been attacked in al Qaeda communiqués as both a "crusader" country and an "apostate" former Islamic land, Spain will not delude itself that making nice--by, for instance, distancing itself from the U.S.-led war on terror--will ransom it from al Qaeda's wrath. Nor will the United States abandon Spain to its domestic terrorists on the equally false grounds that they are no concern of ours. If, for instance, terrorists with previously local grievances are learning logistical lessons from al Qaeda's large-scale simultaneous bombings, that is our problem, too.
The U.N. Security Council resolution condemning ETA in the aftermath of the bombings risks looking premature, should ETA turn out not to have been involved. But the United States was right to join the unanimous vote. It was a vote to recognize that the differences countries may have in measuring, investigating, and assessing terrorism are minor in relation to their need for common purpose in the face of the terrorist threat.
Outgoing Spanish prime minister José María Aznar made the decision to back the United States in its war on terror, not just in Afghanistan but also in Iraq. In the face of significant political resistance, he reached the assessment that seems to us the correct one: September 11 was Spain's September 11. In the same way, March 11 is our March 11. It confronts the United States with similarly solemn obligations of unlimited solidarity, not just in words but in deeds.
-Christopher Caldwell, for the Editors