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Rebuilding unity

The 10th anniversary of 11-M is time to overcome the divisions of the past caused by conspiracy theories

The 10 years that have elapsed since the March 11 massacre (11-M) are time enough to bridge the divide separating Spaniards with differing views on Europe's biggest terrorist strike. Madrid, which became the capital of pain, must now become the setting for a renewed sense of unity around the memory of the 192 people who died and over 1,500 who were wounded in the barbaric attack. It is not normal for a crime against humanity to have caused so much internal confrontation, instead of enhancing respect for and solidarity with the victims' relatives. Instead, this respect was soiled by those who questioned the police and court investigation of the events.

Spain had very little experience with Jihadist terrorism. Neither its political leaders nor its law enforcement agencies were ready for such a strike. The extreme right and its dependent media outlets tried to deny the evidence and developed conspiracy theories to explain the political change in 2004 (when the Socialists defeated the incumbent Popular Party in general elections held three days after the attacks). All of this has considerably eroded the trust that a society needs to place in its institutions. The positive outcome of all this is that we have learned to prevent other threats by improving the instruments available in a rule of law to fight the Jihadist danger, while at the same time managing to understand the difference between the Muslim world in general and violent Islam.

There are still conspiracy theorists who see black holes in the entire investigation. Yet judges, attorneys, police officials and terrorism experts agree that the basics of the case have been sufficiently accredited and cleared up. Since the High Court handed down its ruling in 2007, there have been a further six or so court decisions in Europe and Morocco, all of which explored the facts even further and sentenced accessories to the attacks to new prison terms.

There is also a sense of passé about the hoaxes claiming that the police and judges were in cahoots with the goal of blaming Islamic terrorism for 11-M; these claims nevertheless triggered court investigations into certain police officers, who underwent a torment of their own following the attacks. Judges have since dismissed those cases. After so much insistence on the part of those who felt that the Basque terrorist group ETA had a hand in the attacks, the former director of the newspaper that fanned the conspiracy theories the most has just admitted that ETA was "probably" not involved. And one of the greatest terrorism experts has documented the broad coalition of Jihadist groups that participated in the attack, which was planned before the government of José María Aznar supported the Iraq invasion, and certainly before general elections were set for March 2004.

While we must not forget what happened – and Spain is certainly short on historical memory – the time has come to appreciate how democratic coexistence and civil liberties were preserved despite the irresponsible climate of suspicion created by the hoaxes; this is a goal well worth maintaining, and it also includes a redefinition of the line that separates responsible journalism from journalism that is hostage to individuals without scruples.

Managing this kind of consensus is very desirable if we really are to turn a new page in which democrats no longer need to prove to each other that they are so each time a new pathogen agent tries to contaminate our public spaces, nor try to extract partisan advantages from the division of opinion between dignified and undignified citizens, between lucid ones and blind ones, over terrorism issues. Respect for victims and their families should form the basis of the collective will of a society that is intent on looking forward.

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