People attend a gathering to mourn for terror attack victims at Placa Catalunya, Barcelona, Spain, on Aug. 18, 2017. Xu Jinquan/Xinhua News Agency/Press Association. All rights reserved. Until fairly recently, walking down Las Ramblas – the scene of yesterday’s devastating attack – was something Barcelonians used to do quite regularly, enjoying a relaxed stroll down to the port. Before the great urban transformation brought about by the Olympic Games 25 years ago, it was one of the few spots where ordinary citizens could come in contact with the sea. This pedestrian boulevard is one of the city’s landmarks, once famous for its unique mixture of cosmopolitan diversity and Mediterranean parochialism, a place where the uptown Catalan bourgeois rushing to the opera house would encounter everyday folk going about their business, as well as the seedier elements of the night-time economy. In other words, Las Ramblas represented the democratic spirit of an open-minded city in southern Europe.
Over the last decade or more, Barcelona’s success as a global tourist destination has made Las Ramblas a place most locals tend to avoid, thinking it too crowded, and lamenting the replacement of modest stands selling blue parakeets and baby turtles with fancy kiosks selling waffles and ice-cream. Even so, Las Ramblas remains part of the soul of this city, if only because it is still the place where Barça fans traditionally gather to celebrate the victories of their extraordinary football team.
So yesterday, when Barcelonians learned that a van had ploughed through a crowd of pedestrians in this special place, killing more than a dozen and injuring one hundred, it was experienced as a terrible blow. Barcelonians are very proud of their welcoming and peaceful city. When, 30 years ago, Basque terrorists, in their deadliest attack ever, bombed a supermarket car park killing 21 innocent people, the city reacted with incredible abhorrence. As a consequence, Eta never came back to town.
And yet, Barcelona has been considered a likely target for a jihadist terror attack for some years, and this incident has certainly not come as a surprise to the intelligence and security forces. They have been working successfully to protect the city, and a number of plots, at different stages of preparation, have been successfully dismantled over the years. After the Madrid attacks in 2004, it became clear that Spain was firmly on the jihadist terrorists’ map. The country, if not its government, strongly opposed the Iraq war, and has kept a low profile as far as other western military interventions in the Arab world are concerned, an attitude that some analysts thought might have prevented Spain becoming a target in the way the US, the UK or France are. If there is one thing that can feed the spirit of a nation and the solidarity of its people, it’s a deadly terrorist attack.
However, with this current wave of attacks on soft targets, which only need a rented van and a resolute driver to succeed, prevention has become an unmanageable challenge. Taking into account what has happened over the last year in Nice, in London, in Stockholm and in Berlin, it was only a matter of time before Barcelona would experience the same misfortune. It is not clear at this point how many perpetrators were involved in the Barcelona attack, and the second in Cambrils, a small tourist town south of Barcelona where five suspected terrorists have been shot dead, although the complexity of the operations suggests significant planning.
What is clear is that, by striking at a world-famous brand, a favourite destination, a place where so many people from so many countries gather, this is an attempt to make a global impact. As much as 16% of Spain’s GDP comes from tourism, and as many as 84 million tourists are expected to visit the country in 2017. Hitting Spain in the middle of August, when tourism is at its peak, underlines the intended global ambitions of the act.
The domestic consequences of this attack are still unfolding, but it comes at a very delicate political moment in Spain, when tensions between the Catalan regional government, controlled by supporters of independence, and the Spanish central government, are at a historic high. After a first attempt to hold a referendum on independence in November 2014 was met with firm opposition from Madrid, the pro-independence camp ended up holding an informal poll. At that time, they managed to get support from about one-third of eligible voters. They have now called for a new referendum, due on 1 October this year, and have declared they will hold it despite an explicit prohibition by the constitutional court. The tension was already brimming over on this issue when the van ploughed Las Ramblas yesterday, and Barcelonians, Catalans and Spanish alike felt first the horror, then the pain, and now the sorrow.
In these times of uncertainty and the blurring of borders, if there is one thing that can feed the spirit of a nation and the solidarity of its people, it’s a deadly terrorist attack. Barcelona will proudly rise stronger from this day of horror. It will remain a modern, attractive, cosmopolitan and increasingly global city. We are all united in this endless battle against extremism, and today there is less room than ever for what Robert Kaplan once brilliantly called the narcissism of small differences.
This article was originally published in The Guardian on 18/ 8/ 2017