Last Sunday’s Spanish election and the new government’s plan to withdraw its troops from Iraq were not well received by North American opinion makers. A Globe editorial said it gave a “gold-plated strategic victory” to “international Islamist terrorism.” The National Post wrote, “Terrorism wins in Spain.” U.S. Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert said the Spanish “chose to . . . in a sense, appease terrorists.” Representative Henry Hyde called the vote “a great victory for al-Qaeda.”

My own view is different. I see the election as a victory for democracy, for reason (in the sense associated with the term “Western civilization”) and for the Spanish people. Let me say why.

A victory for democracy. This must be seen in the context of the defeat for democracy embodied in Spain’s entry into the Iraq war. Ninety per cent had opposed it, but their elected leaders ignored them. Ninety per cent is close to unanimity. You get a few per cent saying yes to anything. The Spanish people had survived 40 years of fascist dictatorship (I’m not name-calling; it was literally fascist) followed by an attempted coup, and established a healthy democracy. Think how humiliating it was to have their clear will disregarded. How dare the New York Times‘s Thomas Friedman call them “crazy” and out to “appease radical evil” by opposing what he calls “the first democracy-building project ever in the Arab world.” Let us trample democracy in the name of democracy. “But screw democracy,” wrote David Warren in the Post. “We are fighting an enemy . . . We defeat him, or he defeats us.”

The Spanish voted in record numbers, in the shadow of murderous attacks that affected many families. The government refused to postpone the vote, surely because it thought the anxiety and fear would work for it. (If not, why not delay?) It tried to misdirect blame to those who denied responsibility for the bombs (Basque separatists), away from those who claimed it (an Islamist grouplet).

There was great pressure not to look gutless or to “surrender” — in a culture that created the term “machismo.” Yet in this tense emotional and political tangle, citizens managed to cast a nuanced and thoughtful vote, I would say, rejecting mere gestures and choosing a government that is both anti-terror and anti-war. Edward Luttwak wrote in The Globe that “the Spanish literally had no time to reflect between the Madrid bombs and the election.” But that’s wrong. They had just barely enough time and they did an amazing job.

A victory for reason. The Globe editorial said “Spain’s Zapatero should reconsider” because Spain’s policy toward Iraq has no real effect and “another pretext for an attack would have been found,” just as the September 11 attacks “were unprovoked.” This is a metaphysical view of terror, an incomprehensible evil in search of an outlet. “. . .Today’s Satanists,” wrote Barbara Amiel in the Post, “are so transcendentally Satanic that it genuinely leads to the invocation, Deliver us from evil.”

It is the view of U.S. Vice-President Dick Cheney: “There is only one thing to do with this enemy, destroy him” — as if terror is a country you can decimate. But what if terror is more like a constellation: It contains hard ideologues, desperate militants, vague sympathizers etc., scattered across societies which are themselves splintered. That is the more nuanced view of terror, which I think Spanish voters endorsed, and their new leader expresses when he says that actions like the Iraq war “only allow hatred, violence and terror to proliferate.” His view at least suggests another route to try.

What the Spanish vote invoked was the power of reason, the ability to think in the face of murder and hate; not explain them away or even fully explain them, but to use the tool of human intelligence, instead of being driven to panic, trust in authority or blind faith in a god. It is a sort of vindication of reason in the Enlightenment sense, as opposed to the religious obscurantism of calling on a deity, and denying that a rational response is possible. Now who represents the tradition of “Western civilization” in all this?

A victory for Spain. Spain has, as I said, a bit of history in the modern era. It knows about tyranny and death. The Western democracies stood neutral as Generalissimo Franco attacked and destroyed Spain’s elected government in the 1930s, then they propped him up during the Cold War. The foreigners who actually came to the aid of Spanish democracy were not politicians and editorialists, but the unofficial members of the International Brigades, who offered their blood and were often criminalized by their own governments.

Spain officially celebrated its 60th anniversary in 1996. Norman Bethune, the Communist Canadian doctor who proposed, gasp, universal public health care in the 1930s, and who was part of our Mackenzie-Papineau battalion in Spain, might have cocked a wry smile.


Rick Salutin

Rick Salutin is a Canadian novelist, playwright and critic. He is a strong advocate of left wing causes and writes a regular column in the Toronto Star.