Spain's path to 3/11 memorial

How should Madrid honor 190 killed in train bombings?

The young family stood quietly, watching hands lay flowers and light candles. A chorus sang hymns.

On vacation in Madrid, Rafael, his wife, and two children observed these sorrowful images at one of two "video walls" recently installed at Madrid's Atocha station, where people now pay their respects to the victims of the March 11 terrorist attacks by leaving electronic messages instead of notes and bouquets. As his young daughter Cristina typed in her own tribute, Rafael admitted that he liked the interactive display. "It's very respectful and appropriate," he said. "And it's simple."

But publicly honoring the victims of March 11 is not so simple an undertaking. This was Spain's 9/11 - a devastating loss of civilian life that brought home the global fight against Al Qaeda-linked terrorists and Spain's role in Iraq.

As New Yorkers have discovered, commemorating the victims of terrorist attacks is an endeavor fraught with controversy. In Madrid, the national and city governments were each planning separate monuments. But last week they announced a single competition for the monument's design.

Explaining the decision, Minister of Development Magdalena Alvarez said: "Initially we thought that we [the ministry] would put our monument inside the station, and the city government would erect theirs outside. But we realized that that didn't make sense, since our goals are the same, and the message is the same."

While the joint announcement may have prevented one conflict, other obstacles lie ahead. One of the most divisive questions to be resolved is who, exactly, the monument should commemorate. The bombings that killed 190 people March 11 were hardly Spain's first experience with terrorism. Attacks by ETA, the Basque separatist group, have claimed the lives of more than 850 Spaniards over the past 30 years, and there is no national monument to commemorate those losses.

It is an absence that José Alcaráz, president of Madrid's Association for the Victims of Terrorism (AVT), hopes to address. "There are more than 460 families in Madrid alone who have been affected" by ETA's terrorism, he explains, "and we believe that [the planned monument] should include them as well."

Many Spaniards disagree, and say that it is a mistake to commemorate both groups of victims in a single monument. Juan Cordero, a teacher at the Louis Braille high school in Coslada, lost his wife in the attacks. Although he understands the AVT's motivations, he maintains that "the two [kinds of attacks] are not equal. You have to separate them."

Madrid's mayor, Alberto Ruiz- Gallardón, appears to support Mr. Cordero's views. At a recent press conference he emphasized that the "only qualification for the monument is that it be an homage to the victims of March 11."

Beyond such political issues, the monument also faces aesthetic, technical, and practical challenges. Although the structure's exact location has been decided - a traffic island near the Atocha station - the memorial's design remains to be selected from among hundreds of proposals by an official jury. Winners of the competition will be announced in September, and the monument will be inaugurated on the first anniversary of the attacks.

Juan Miguel Hernández Leon, director of Madrid's Higher Technical School of Architecture, maintains that for a monument to be successful, "its symbolism must be something shared, something understood, by everyone." In fact, he says that the displays of flowers, candles, photographs, and notes at the three train stations where the bombings occurred - displays that have now been replaced by the video walls - may remain an unrivaled tribute to those lost on March 11.

Those original displays were removed by the national rail company, RENFE, when station workers expressed dismay about having to confront such reminders of grief. Although RENFE spokesman Manuel Sampere is careful to emphasize that the video wall is not a monument, the number of visitors that have come to pay homage (more than 65,000 people have left messages) would suggest otherwise.

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