WASHINGTON -- Measured by the immediacy and importance of their political effect, the train bombs in Madrid were the most efficient explosions in the history of terrorism. Detonated 74 hours before polls opened in a national election, the reverberations toppled a U.S. ally.
Seven decades ago Spain became a cockpit for the 20th century's contending totalitarianisms -- fascism and communism. Its 1936-39 civil war, a witches' brew of political and religious passions, was exceptionally savage, even for a civil war. Last Thursday this century's passions exploded in Spain.
Perhaps Sunday's election, which removed the leadership that took Spain into the war against Islamic terrorism, means that after the home-grown terrors of the 20th century, Spain, like much of the rest of Europe, wants only peace, and at any price. But Americans should be tentative about extracting lessons from all this. Spain can be confusing.
During the campus turbulence of the 1960s, students at one small American college viewed ``To Die in Madrid,'' the documentary film about Spain's civil war. When the film's narrator intoned, ``The rebels advanced on Madrid,'' the students, enamored of rebellion and innocent of information, cheered. No one had ever taught them which side in Spain had been rebelling.
The immediate danger for Americans in the aftermath of Madrid is that terrorists who struck there are as ignorant of today's Americans as those 1960s students were of 1930s Spain. The terrorists may draw an erroneous conclusion. They may conclude that that the reaction of the Spanish electorate -- cashiering the government that supported regime change in Iraq -- would be replicated in the United States in response to a terrorist attack on the eve of the presidential election.
It is likely that an attack would trigger a reflex to rally 'round the government. Public support even soared for President Kennedy in the immediate aftermath of the Bay of Pigs debacle, perhaps the most feckless use of power in American history.
But much American rhetoric is now so routinely vituperative, it may strike foreign enemies as evidence of paralyzing national discord. And conceivably it is evidence of national divisions that could widen, not close, in the event of a large terrorist attack.
For example, in his Saturday response for the Democrats to President Bush's weekly radio broadcast, Sen. Edward Kennedy said that the administration's arguments for war against Iraq were not merely, in Kennedy's view, mistaken, they were a conscious dishonesty -- a ``distraction.'' Such statements are perhaps predictable from a senator who recently cited, approvingly, the writings of Karen Kwiatkowski.
The Weekly Standard reports that she, a retired Air Force officer, has written about ``the Zionist political cult that has lassoed the E-Ring'' of the Pentagon (the offices of senior civilian Defense Department officials). She says the war in Afghanistan was ``planned of course before 9/11/01'' because of ``Taliban non-cooperation'' regarding a trans-Afghanistan pipeline. She says that with ``Bush and his neoconservative foreign policy implementers''-- those E-Ring Jews -- resembling propagandists like Lenin, Hitler and Pol Pot, ``all evidence'' points to ``a maturing fascist state'' in America and, in foreign policy, ``fascist imperialism touched by Sparta revived.''
On Sunday, when the Spanish election was going badly for U.S. interests, so, too, was Russia's presidential election -- if it can be dignified as such. Vladimir Putin used bribery and intimidation to pull people to the polls after a campaign in which the state apparatus propagandized for him and marginalized his competitors. In the process, Putin managed to further delegitimize himself with a 71 percent landslide.
This was a large milestone on Russia's rapid slide back into authoritarianism. The slide cannot be blamed on the Bush administration. But because the central tenet of the administration's foreign policy is that U.S. security increases with the spread of democracy, the administration must be dismayed by the traducing of democracy in a nation that spans 11 time zones.
Also on Sunday, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the deposed president of Haiti, accompanied by one of the shrillest members of Congress, California Democrat Maxine Waters, flew, against the wishes of the Bush administration, from his brief exile in the Central African Republic to Jamaica. Although it is uncertain what Aristide's return to the Caribbean portends, it cannot be counted as helpful to U.S. ``nation-building'' in Haiti. But, then, what could be?
Monday morning's headlines suggested a loss of U.S mastery of events. But, then, belief that events can be mastered is the root of most political misfortunes.