I went into my local newsstand the other morning, as I do every morning, and cracked wise to the vendor.
“Not sure which paper to buy,” I said. “The one with corruption headlines, or one with headlines about corruption.”
“Expletive,” the newsman said. “Those politicians are a bunch of expletive expletives.”
“A lot of them do seem to be up to their eyeballs,” I said.
“We need to go to France,” the newsman said.
“You wouldn’t be the first.”
“No, we need to go to France and steal from some museums.”
“Si, si. Steal some of their old guillotines. Set them up in our plazas. Make a few corrupt heads roll.”
“Well, I –“
“That’d make the next thief think twice.”
“Or,” I said, “Spain could just toughen existing penalties for corruption. The statute on such crimes usually runs out in five or six years. And if people do go to jail, it never seems to be for more than a year or two.”
The newsman nodded. “And,” he said, “they never give what money they’ve stolen back.”
“Which is why we need guillotines.”
“Yeah, but one big problem with guillotines is who gets to run them.”
“Okay, see you tomorrow.”
I crossed the street to buy bread, and at the bakery the same discussion was already well underway.
“We ought to take away everything they own,” the baker was saying about politicians and bankers, shaking her fist. “If they’re going to continue stealing and kicking people out of their homes, then we take the clothes off their backs. Force them to live on the street too.”
She was holding a copy of a different newspaper, in which there was an article about another suicide by someone who’d been evicted from his home, but who was still being forced to pay the debt that led to his eviction to begin with. There was supposed to have been a moratorium on such evictions, since a couple of similar suicides this fall. But so far this year about 50,000 have been carried out.
A guy working on one of the baker’s ovens lifted his head up, wiped his brow.
“If a politician or civil servant steals the public’s money,” he said. “I don’t care about getting it back. I think we should put them to work, digging ditches. Then, when they’re done, we shoot them in the head and bury them right there. Under roads, wherever.”
An elderly woman waiting patiently in line nodded vigorously in agreement.
Complaining in shops is typical on early Spanish mornings. People gripe about whatever there is to gripe about, and you don’t really think too much about it. It’s more like a reflex. But what was different this morning was the suggestion of violence. I’ve never heard head-chopping and summary executions figure in the routine.
It doesn’t in any way suggest that my neighbors were serious. Or that Spaniards are close to a sort of collective uprising that might lead to lynchings.
On the contrary, violent protest here has been remarkably low in over five years of economic crisis. But the morning’s rants do reflect just how fed up people are with sacrificing, in the form of higher taxes and reduced public services, while their elected leaders are exposed, one after another, as corrupt. Or allegedly corrupt.
Every day seems to bring a new case to light. From the Royal Family to the top leadership of the country to countless local barons. Before leaving the bakery I suggested this was all actually good news.
“All the scheming must have already been underway,” I said. “The fact that the press is now writing about it shows that society is in a process of cleansing.”
My neighbors shook their heads, glanced at each other.
“Well, you have to start somewhere,” I said.
“The problem,” the oven repair guy said, “is once you start looking, it’s never going to end.”
That was a deeply defeatist thing to say, suggesting a total lack of confidence in the country’s ruling class. Some recent national polls here have reflected similar sentiment.
Apparently even the European Union Commission is becoming alarmed. According to the El Pais newspaper, it has issued an internal memo, expressing concern that so much corruption could cause ordinary Spaniards to “totally disconnect” from the political process.
This in a country held up and hailed as a model of democratic tradition only one generation ago.