Mass Murder and Satire

(Credit: Kippelboy / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0)

Excerpt from The Tyranny of Silence by Flemming Rose (Cato Institute, 2016). Reprinted with permission from the author.

Chapter 2: Mass Murder and Satire

“Never bein’ able to separate the good from the bad
Ooh, I can’t stand it, I can’ stand it,
It’s making me feel so sad.”
—Bob Dylan

“I woke up this morning to an empty sky.”
—Bruce Springsteen

In October 2007, Maria Gomez and I sit at the Gran Hotel Canarias café, across from the Prado Museum and the Ritz Hotel, within view of the lively Paseo del Prado. She wears jeans, a loose-fitting white top, and large sunglasses that protect her eyes from the blinding autumn sun. She is stocky with shoulder-length blonde hair, and when she pushes her shades on top of her head, a pair of sparkling brown eyes appear. I order coffee with milk while she lights a cigarette. She seems restless, and over the course of our conversation her mood flashes from sorrow and anger to dark humor to helplessness. One moment she laughs, the next she becomes silent and introverted, tears filling her eyes.

Since her husband’s death, Maria hasn’t been able to work. A year ago she and her young daughter moved to the touristy island of Menorca to try to get on with her life, leaving her two boys in the care of her ex-husband. The change of scene didn’t help. She fell into a depression as she watched the other children playing with both of their parents. Maria’s mother, with whom she is very close, is dying of cancer. Her sole source of income is a small pension she receives as a spouse of one of the victims of the terror attack on Madrid.

All this and much more emerges as she describes the tragic series of events beginning March 11, 2004, a day etched into her memory and the memories of her 46 million countrymen forever.

March 11 fell on a Thursday. As usual, Maria rose early. She prepared breakfast for her children and readied the older boys—ages five and eight—for school. The baby is only four months old. It was quiet inside her modest villa in a suburb north of Madrid—no television, radio, or computer games. At this time of the day, Maria was not interested in what went on in the rest of the world. She loved the peace and quiet that filled her home during the nascent morning hours.

Shortly after seven she texted her husband Carlos, who had been working a night shift.

“Good morning, my love, looking forward to seeing you,” she wrote.

Since the beginning of February, thirty-four year-old Carlos had worked as a welder on a construction site at a supermarket in the neighborhood of Alcalá de Henares. Because of the supermarket’s opening hours the crew had to work at night. It was his second night in Alcalá de Henares; the next day he would move to another location.

Maria’s mobile phone rang. The phone’s clock read 7:41. It was Carlos.

“I’m on the train. I’m exhausted,” he said.

“How far are you?”

“I’m at Santa Eugenia—I should be home in about half an hour, forty-five minutes.”

Maria couldn’t have known it then, but those would be Carlos’ last words. Twelve hours later his destroyed body would be identified in a military hospital.

“I called him at eight-thirty when he still hadn’t come home,” she remembers. “What is going on? I thought. It’s weird that he isn’t answering. The train is probably delayed or something like that.”

A little while later Maria left the house with her children. From the car she sent yet another text message: “What’s happening? Please answer.” At the school she heard that there had been a train accident, but no one knew any details. A female teacher, who usually rides the local train to work, still hadn’t arrived.

“The other parents were very nice. Two of the mothers went home with me and promised to look after the smallest one while I went to look for Carlos.”

By this point Maria was worried, but the other women calmed her down. She turned on the TV and calls her mother, who was too busy to stop by. Her father offered to help instead, though the two of them have a complicated relationship. She called her ex-husband and asked him to make sure the boys were picked up from school. Maria’s brother, just arrived on a plane from New York, came over as well.

New reports about the attack finally reached them. The basic facts emerged: at 7:38 AM, two bombs exploded on separate cars on Local Train Number 21435, which ran from Alcalá de Henares to the main station of Atocha in the city center—the train Carlos rode to work. The explosions occurred just as the train pulled out of El Pozo del Tio Raimundo, a few kilometers east of Atocha. For many hours, Maria was convinced that Carlos could not have been killed. The time of his call registered on her phone at 7:41 AM, three minutes after the attack. It was only later that she realized her phone was a fatal few minutes too fast.

“At that point none of us could imagine that he could be dead. We just wanted to find him. It was very confusing.”

The terrorist attack on Madrid was the worst in Europe since Pan Am Flight 103 exploded in the air above Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988. Ten bombs in rucksacks placed on four different trains throughout Madrid were set off by remote triggers attached to cellular phones. According to court documents, seven suicide bombers detonated the explosives between 7:37 and 7:40 AM—the busiest part of the morning rush hour. All the trains involved rode towards the central station Atocha, which a quarter of a million people pass through on weekdays. Many of those who died were immigrants who commuted between the capital and its outskirts, enjoying the opportunities afforded by Spain’s economic prosperity. In total, 191 people from seventeen countries lost their lives: 142 Spaniards as well as people from Romania, Ecuador, Poland, Bulgaria, Peru, The Dominican Republic, Columbia, Morocco, Ukraine, Honduras, Senegal, Cuba, Chile, Brazil, France and the Philippines. A number of the victims were Muslims. The Atocha station lies just a few minute’s walk from Reina Sofia Museum which holds Pablo Picasso’s masterpiece “Guernica.” The painting takes its name from a Basque village decimated in an air-raid by German and Italian forces in 1937. The image of brutal carnage and chaos has become an icon for the destruction and torment wrought by war. In the wake of the Madrid attack the painting took on a new significance.

“I’ll never forget the sight of what happened here,” a rescue-worker told the British newspaper The Guardian during a memorial ceremony at the El Pozo-station on the anniversary of the attack. “I still remember the smell of gunpowder smoke, how we found bodies on the platform, the head of a boy lying on a bench.”

Television reports showed that the roof had been torn off one of the train-cars in the El Pozo-station where Carlos was killed. The other car had its side ripped up. A body had been blown on top of the roof; others were spread across the tracks. Sixty-seven people died on that train. Many of the corpses were so mangled that DNA tests were required to identify the victims.

Maria finally found Carlos late that night. The rescue team found his wallet with identification on the body and contacted her. She rode to the hospital with her brother and his girlfriend, while her parents went in another car. When she arrived, her father had already identified Carlos, though the body was almost unrecognizable.

“I asked my mother: How is he? She replied: He is no more. I experienced it all like a foggy dream. I recognized him from the tattoos, the remnants of his clothes and hands. He was missing both legs from the knees down.”

Her world fell apart. She and Carlos had just begun a fresh life together: a new baby, a new house a tranquil distance from the hubbub of Madrid. All their plans and dreams died along with Carlos.

“It was as if I was disconnected from life. For months I lived inside my own space while life went on around me. I didn’t care at all. Today it seems incredible, but that’s how it was. It was awful.”

Maria’s politics changed as well. In the late 1980s, she had enrolled in a journalism program at a Madrid university, but she dropped out and pursued a string of part-time jobs in communications instead. She considered herself a leftist and generally supported the Socialist party, but she was not particularly active and rarely even voted. At the time of the attack, Spain’s Prime Minister was the conservative José Maria Aznar of the Partido Popular (“People’s Party”). But in the parliamentary elections shortly after the attack, they were swept from power by José Zapatero and the Partido Socialista Obrero Español (the Spanish Socialist Workers Party). Many voters’ confidence in Aznar was shaken by his mistaken claim that the Basque separatist group ETA were responsible for the bombings. Experts disagreed as to whether the group responsible for the Madrid attack was affiliated with or funded by Al Qaeda, but all parties confirmed that the terrorists were at the very least inspired by Al Qaeda’s ideology. In the spring of 2010, terror researcher Fernando Reinars presented new information about the terrorists’ financial backers, confirming that the idea was probably developed and approved by Al Qaeda in northern Waziristan in Pakistan near the Afghan border. The mass-murder in Madrid was seen as another battle between radical islamists and modern secular society. In response to the attack, the Socialists had promised an immediate withdrawal of Spanish troops from the Iraq War, and their victory was interpreted by some as a political success for the terrorists.

Somewhat to her surprise, Maria found that her views aligned more with the conservative opposition party than with the new government. She became a political junkie. In contrast to the days before March 11, when she had savored the silent mornings on her peaceful tree-lined street, she now followed the news compulsively on television and online.

“I never want to leave my house in the morning without checking the news.”

My meeting with Maria came about because of a short article I read in the paper in the spring of 2007. The article said that a woman appeared in the courtroom during the trial of the alleged Madrid bombers wearing a t-shirt printed with Kurt Westergaard’s infamous cartoon. The piece piqued my curiosity and I sought out an interview. We met less than three weeks before the sentencing of the bombers. Maria, along with other victims’ relatives, had closely followed their trial, which took place in an old castle on the western edge of Madrid used only for special cases. Maria told me about the first day of the trial. It was the first time that victims’ families came face to face with the accused. One woman, whose mother had been killed, began shouting at one of them: “You are a murderer!”

Maria told me, “I wanted to look them in the eye. I needed to confront them, to see if I could get some information about what had happened, but their eyes were empty, they told me nothing.”

Maria had a peculiar confrontation with one of the main defendants, the thirty-six year-old Egyptian Rabei Osman Sayed Ahmed who had bragged in a phone conversation about having planned the attack for two and a half years.

“I wanted to plan it so that it would be unforgettable, even to me, because I was ready to blow myself up, but they stopped me,” the transcripts of Osman’s conversations read.

Spanish authorities found Osman in Milan, Italy in 2004, where he was already serving a sentence for planning acts of international terrorism. From 1999 until his arrest he had traveled around Europe seeking recruits from radical cells to carry out suicide missions. In his Madrid apartment the police discovered a computer program with the ability to activate a number of mobile phones simultaneously, the same technology used in the March bombing. According to Spain’s intelligence, Osman had a background as a bomb expert in the Egyptian army, and he had been imprisoned in Egypt for his membership in the group Islamic Jihad.

Osman was the first defendant called in the trial, but he refused to answer questions from either the prosecution or the defense. Maria says she caught his eyes for a moment and was able to read his lips.

“He said ‘whore’ to us. I could tell from his lips. I wanted to jump up and kill him, but of course I can’t do that, I have three children.”

After the attack Maria also developed a deeper interest in Islam. Her recently deceased grandfather had worried about immigration into Spain from the Middle East and North Africa, and had often spoken to his grandchild about Spain’s history with Islam. The Moors first conquered Andalusia in the 8th century, holding it until in 1492, when Catholic monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella took back the region and forced Muslims and Jews to convert or leave the Iberian peninsula. When she was young Maria had paid little attention to her grandfather’s history lessons, but now she reflected often on his words. He feared that with the high birthrate among Muslim immigrants, parts of Spain would soon be “re-conquered” by Muslims.

“I really want to understand [the terrorists] and in a way I do. Of course I don’t understand why they would kill other people, but we step on them too, and maybe I would also get angry if I were one of them, but I’ll never truly understand their point of view.”

“I don’t want to raise my children as racists, but there are rational reasons to warn them about the Islamic threat. There are reasons we should be critical of Islam. Religion can be dangerous.”

In her new life, Maria had compiled an extensive electronic archive of articles and images pertaining to the attack, including the cartoons published by Jyllands-Posten. One day when Maria was surfing the web she came across a German company that sold t-shirts. She ordered a white shirt with a print of the cartoon on front and paid by credit card. The cost was less than twenty Euros and a few days later the t-shirt arrived in the mail.

I asked her why she picked that particular image.

“Because it was the most representative illustration of what the islamists stand for. That drawing expressed how I felt and what I wanted to say. It represented a piece of reality. I have also had a poster made; it’s hanging on a wall in my house.”

On March 26, 2007 she dropped her children off earlier than usual and drove the half-hour to the courtroom in Madrid. In order not to call attention to herself prematurely she had put on a black shirt over the t-shirt.

“I was pleased because I knew that now was my chance to show the terrorists how I felt about them.”

But the day ended more dramatically than she had anticipated. Earlier in the trial proceedings she had sat in the back of the room, but that day she moved to the front so that the accused could see her and she could see them. She unbuttoned her black shirt and pulled it aside, flashing the cartoon at the defendants on the other side of the glass cage.

“I could tell from the Egyptian’s face that he didn’t like what he saw.”

Several of the defendants reacted immediately, calling on their defense attorney to have Maria removed from the courtroom. An officer told her that the message on her t-shirt was offensive and requested that she leave the courtroom discretely. On the way out the judge asked for her name and to speak with her in private after the proceedings.

Maria was shocked at her removal. The defendants watched the interaction with satisfaction.

“I didn’t know what to say and started crying when we got outside in the hall. ‘What is this, don’t we live in a free country? Can’t I wear whatever I like?’ I asked. I felt bad, really bad.”

That afternoon Maria met with the judge. He made it clear to her that he wouldn’t allow her t-shirt in court as it could be used by the defense to claim that the courtroom was an atmosphere biased against Islam, and that the accused could not expect a fair trial. Already, there had been a similar incident when a prosecutor wore crucifix around his neck.

“I had no intention of offending Muslims in general when showing my t-shirt. I was specifically targeting the Egyptian and the other defendants. I told the Arabic interpreter as much when he came out to see my t-shirt.”

On October 31, 2007 the judge ruled on the case. Twenty-one of the twenty-eight defendants were sentenced with assisting in the attack. Nineteen of the sentenced were Arab, while nine were Spaniards. Three were charged with murder and received the maximum sentence of forty years in prison. None of the other defendants received more than twenty-three years imprisonment, and the presumed leader, the Egyptian Rabei Osman, was acquitted, though he still had to serve out a ten-year sentence in Italy. After her incident in the court, Osman’s acquittal stung Maria acutely. The fact that only three of the accused were sentenced with murder was a shock to her and the other victims’ relatives.

A spokesman for the families of the survivors expressed their indignation: “If they didn’t do it, we have to find the ones who did. Someone gave the order.”

Another response was more blunt: “I’m neither a judge nor a lawyer, but this is scandalous and enraging.”

After saying goodbye to Maria I walked in the shade of the trees towards the Sofia Reina Museum. I stood looking at Picasso’s painting.

“All of the world’s societies who have been the victims of a terrible crime have become synonymous with the painting ‘Guernica’ and the city of Guernica,” the art-historian Gijs van Hensbergen wrote of the painting. “The same way that Anne Frank’s story has become the symbol of all Jewish children who were destroyed in the concentration camps, and Auschwitz has become the stenographic expression of the apocalyptic terror of the Holocaust, ‘Guernica’ has become synonymous with random bloodbath in any corner of the world where such atrocities take place.”

The terrorist attack on Madrid may not have destroyed the Spanish capital so completely as the Second World War did to Guernica, but the scenes described by eyewitnesses mirror the horrors depicted in Picasso’s painting.

I continued to the Atocha station where the four trains had been headed. On the third anniversary of the terrorist attack Spain’s royal couple had inaugurated a memorial to the victims. It consists of a glass cylinder-shaped tower, eleven meters tall and engraved with thousands of messages of condolence from across the world. Beneath the tower, under the wide boulevard in front of the station, is a stark blue room, lit solely by the streetlights above. Visitors can stand in the room and look up through the cylinder to read the many inscriptions.

I thought about Maria and the story she had told me. To her, Westergaard’s drawing of the Prophet with a bomb described precisely what she and the other victims had been through. The thought of offending Muslims didn’t give her pause; to her the drawing was true. A group of Muslims had murdered her husband and destroyed her life. According to their own words, their actions were motivated by their religion, by the words and life of the Prophet as presented in the Koran. To Maria those were indisputable facts, and they meant that criticizing Islam was a fair and reasonable response.

Is it really not appropriate to engage in pointed but non-violent satire of violent Islam? Philippe Val, the editor of the French satire magazine Charlie Hebdo, asked of the uproar at the cartoon’s publication, what kind of civilization is this if we cannot mock and ridicule those who blow up trains and planes and commit mass-murder of innocent people?

A courtroom may not be the appropriate place for protest, but the dialogue between Maria and her husband’s presumed murderers is quite relevant to the Cartoon Crisis and the broader issues it has raised about tolerance and the distinction between words and action. After all, who was the victim and who was the perpetrator that day in February inside the courtroom in Madrid? Who really had the right to feel violated—a woman who lost her husband or the men who orchestrated his death? Maria’s small protest brings to mind the adage that the pen is mightier than the sword. Shouldn’t it be considered a mark of civilization that in the face of barbaric violence, we respond only with a drawing pencil?

Excerpted from The Tyranny of Silence by Flemming Rose. Copyright © Cato Institute, 2014. All rights reserved.

Flemming Rose is a Danish journalist and author, and served as foreign affairs editor and culture editor at Jyllands-Posten. He is an international advocate for freedom of speech and regularly travels around the world to speak on the subject. In 2015 Rose was awarded the prestigious Publicist Prize from Denmark’s national press club and received the Honor Award for defending free speech from the Norwegian Fritt Ord Foundation. His website is

The Tyranny of Silence
By Flemming Rose
Cato Institute; 1 edition (May 7, 2016)
ISBN-10: 1939709997
ISBN-13: 978-1939709998

Flemming Rose – Free Speech in a Globalized World

Flemming Rose and Dave Rubin: Muhammad Cartoons, Islamism in Europe, Charlie Hebdo

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