Three Minutes Silence

Article published on March 18, 2004
community published
Article published on March 18, 2004

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

Grief, fear and determination: three emotions shared by people all over Europe for three minutes. But has it helped to create unity?

Three minutes of silence for the victims of the Madrid bombings. From the wailing sirens of Paris to the clock chimes in Dresden; from the airwaves of Radio Vatican to a cannon shot in Zagreb; from the Parliament in Strasbourg to the Commission in Brussels. Out of grief, Europe fell silent as one.

Having spent centuries tearing themselves apart, the nations of Europe decided to establish an ‘ever closer union between their peoples.’ With the fall of the Berlin wall the last few vestiges of internal fighting were swept away. The enlargement of the EU should finally mean that the legacy of political stigmas associated with a divided Europe can finally be laid to rest. But even if armed conflicts have been forgotten and borders are becoming increasingly open, European unity is still a long way off. Since Nice, every European summit has turned into a free-for-all, where, for the sake of convenience as well as to cover up their own contradictions, everyone has attacked the cupidity of others to prevent their own thinly veiled nationalism from being noticed.

However, the wind is changing. And, unlike traditional designs for Europe, this change has not been cooked up in the minds of elitist Europhiles meeting behind closed doors, nor by well-briefed civil servants. A collective European conscience is emerging and taking root in the identity of the citizens of this old continent, somewhere between acute nationalism and fervent regionalism.

Perhaps it was perceptible in the thoughts of philosophers like Habermas or Demda. Without doubt, though, this conscience manifested itself in February 2003 in the street demonstrations that united Europeans who refused to support the war on Iraq lead by the Americans under the banner of shared values, in ways that Europeans, deep down, could not identify with. This same collective conscience has shown itself in opinion polls: in February 2004, according to Eurobarometre, 77% of Europeans were in favour of adopting a Constitution for the European Union.

Shared emotions

It came to life in the shared mourning for the victims of the Madrid attacks and in the demonstrations of solidarity that followed the tragedy. Of course there were official reactions: indignant declarations, flags at half-mast, the minute’s silence at the European Parliament and the large-scale demonstrations that took place in Madrid on Friday, where national leaders came together – Prodi, Berlusconi, Raffarin, Fischer and many others. Perhaps it was opportunism but we cannot deny their compassion - the terrorists could just as easily have struck in their own countries.

There were also many instances of individual and collective solidarity: news passed on between friends, demonstrations in front of embassies, shared disbelief and grief. And, on Monday 15 March, three minutes silence, respected by school children in Northern Ireland and the plane engines at Heathrow.

Comments were metaphorical: “We are all Spanish”, “Europe’s September 11th”. The peoples of Europe all understand these shared emotions. But this is nothing to celebrate. We’re talking grief in the face of death, fear in the face of barbarism. Europeans have a shared conscience: they know they are always vulnerable to those who have no respect for human life or democracy. And they have a shared determination: to fight as one the scourge of terrorism that is ready to strike again.

The peoples of Europe have become united in the belief that borders will not protect them from bombs or murderers. Perhaps our leaders will become of aware of this, as Zapatero, the unexpected victor of the Spanish elections, said, “I am committed to working for Europe, to endow Europe with a constitution for all its people.” A European nation has been born out of grief. From Paris to Dresden. From three minutes silence for the victims of the Madrid attacks. Now we just need to encourage it to grow.