Remembering 11-M: The Madrid Atocha Train Station Memorial

TrainEveryone remembers the anniversary of 911 in the United States, but how many of you out there are familiar with the events of 11-M? That combination of numbers, a hyphen, and one letter refers to March 11, 2004, the date of a diabolically-planned and horribly bloody terrorist attack in Madrid, Spain. Referred to as “the worst Islamist attack in European history” by one writer, the events of that day involved the explosion of 10 bombs on commuter trains headed into downtown Madrid, killing 191 people and severely injuring at least another 1800. Packed with dynamite and nails, the bombs literally tore train cars apart and shredded the bodies of those who died or were injured. Coming just three days before national elections, the attacks were first thought to be an attempt by the Basque separatist group ETA to influence the vote – which led to considerable political finger pointing and controversy that continues even today. The destruction leveled by the bombs came simultaneously, indicating a higher level of sophistication in organization that was later attributed to a group of 6 men led by Jamal Zougam, a Moroccan national who was sentenced to 43,000 to 50,000 years in prison. A Spaniard named Emilio Suárez Trashorras received 34,715 years in prison for supplying the dynamite that was used in the explosions.

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The Atocha Train Station Memorial Is Cylindrical
Photo credit: UR Living Learning / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND

The investigation of 11-M turned up no direct connection with al Qaeda, although there are indications that Zougam apparently had close ties with the Madrid al Qaeda terrorist cell. Rather than directly connected to al Qaeda, the attacks seem to be the result of self-radicalization inspired by articles posted on al Qaeda websites. The similarities between the Madrid attacks and the Boston Marathon bombing in the United States are obvious, demonstrating the influence such internet connections have in the realm of transnational violence. Zougam was the owner of a cell phone store located in the Lavapiés neighborhood of Madrid, so it was very likely his telephones that detonated the bombs, which were delivered to the sites of the explosions in backpacks. Train passengers who survived the attacks later identified him as the man who was “leaning against a carriage of one of the trains bombed on 11 March.” Indications from the Boston Marathon bombing are that the explosive devices were also delivered to the site in backpacks, and like the Madrid tragedy they were detonated remotely by cell phone. Zougam apparently acted in league with other Moroccan nationals and similarly inclined Indian nationals, all of whom were implicated in the violent crimes.

Spain’s ultimate construction of a memorial dedicated to the bombings came about with a great deal of controversy, largely due to the political ramifications of the attacks – but also owing to the fact that many Spaniards had previously died in other terrorist attacks implemented by Basque separatists – and none of those tragic deaths have been memorialized through a monument.  Ultimately, it was decided that the memorial, now

located in the Madrid Atocha Railroad Station, would be dedicated specifically to those that died in 11-M – thereby abandoning a national monument dedicated to those that have died in other acts of terrorism in Spain. Before the construction of the monument, the need for catharsis was obvious, necessitating the installation of “video walls” at the station – where Madrileños conveyed their respects to the victims of the March 11 terrorist attacks by leaving electronic messages, in lieu of notes and flower bouquets. One writer referred to this unique means of expressing grief and fear as a “high tech sanctuary” providing a “window to the souls of 192 people” that perished in the explosions. The need for a monument was obvious, as conveyed in the words of one citizen of Madrid, who stated “I don’t know anyone who died in the bombings, but I feel for them all the same.”

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The View Inside Has A Spiritual Quality
Photo credit: airefresco / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND

The Atocha Train Station Memorial is a 36 foot tall cylinder that rises directly out of the ground, in the form of a tower that is illuminated at night by lamps shining from the base of the construction. Floating balloon-like inside the cylindrical structure is a colorless film that is inflated by air – inscribed with thousands of messages of condolence that were made in the days and months after the attacks. Visitors enter the chamber from below, where they view the messages from inside a construction that is composed of glass blocks. Occurring on the third anniversary of the atrocity, the dedication ceremony took place just outside the Atocha Train Station and was attended by King Juan Carlos, Queen Sofia, and President Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero. Political fallout from the tragedy was very evident in the form of hecklers, including one survivor of the attacks who lifted a sign calling for the criminal trial of former President José María Aznar at The Hague. Fraught with controversy, the memorial is nevertheless one of the world’s most interesting and touching monuments dedicated to the victims of terrorism.

There are certain lessons to be learned from the Atocha Train Station Memorial, not just in Spain but in the United States and around world as well. As with the Benghazi attacks in recent U. S. history, the Madrid tragedy became an issue of political finger pointing, rather than a rallying point for promoting world peace. Would those who have died in terroristic events want their deaths tied to political maneuvering, or would they instead wave the flag of intercultural dialogue, tolerance, and peace? Families that have lost loved ones to acts of terrorism are quick to provide an answer to that question, and it has nothing to do with politics and everything to do with world amity. Likewise, critics in Spain have pointed to the need for a national monument dedicated to ALL victims of terrorism, due to the many that have died in other terrorist attacks. This is also true in the United States, because hundreds of citizens of that country have died in heinous acts of transnational violence in places such as Lockerbie, Kuwait City, Beirut, Istanbul, Athens, Dhahran, and Nairobi – just to name a few. Like the victims of ETA in Spain, none of those victims have been recognized through a monument. Join this website in moving such a cause forward – click on the link below and sign the petition!

You can help promote the establishment of a monument dedicated to all American victims of terrorism, whether they died at home or abroad, by clicking the link above and signing the petition. Nothing is asked but your signature for a good cause.

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About jrcclark

On October 2, 2001, scarcely one month after the horrors of 911, Representative Jim Turner of Texas introduced H. R. 2982 to the House of Representatives, calling for “the establishment of a memorial to victims who died as a result of terrorist acts against the United States or its people, at home or abroad.” The resolution was amended by the Committee on Resources in June of 2002 and eventually approved on September 25, 2002 on a “motion to suspend the rules and pass the bill.” It was sent to the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, but it has languished there ever since – in effect dead and going nowhere. In 2008, this Senate Committee considered making Dark Elegy, the work of a New York sculptor who lost a son in the bombing of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, as the monument called for in H. R. 2982. However, the committee turned down the touching and thought-provoking sculptures of Suse Ellen Lowenstein – on the grounds that “…as compelling and impressive a proposal as has been made for the memorial in question, that we believe that, for the time being, that it relates to a very specific incident and should be treated as such rather than as a generic monument to victims of terrorism for all time.” Today the resolution seems forgotten, and it is the purpose of this website to promote a petition to the House of Representatives and the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, requesting that H. R. 2982 be reconsidered and revisited.
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