Shock – solidarity messages – anger – blame – forget – repeat.
Paris, Brussels, Nice, Istanbul, Molenbeek, Ansbach, Berlin…
Is that really all we are capable of? Is that really all we answer to these people destroying lives?
Yes, of course I’m shocked too. Every case in which innocent people suffer and lose their lives is a case too many, and I struggle to even express comfort and solidarity towards these families.
But to be honest, by now I’m more frustrated every time at the reactions Europe produces to terrorist attacks. Using the example of the recent attack on the Berlin Christmas market, here’s the – by now all too familiar – pattern:
Media outlets may be the most prepared actors on this matter. Immediately after a new attack, they send out the “breaking news” (what are they “breaking”, actually?) with all available facts – usually very little at first. The usual suspects are bathing in the cruelty of the pictures right afterwards. This, as well as the language used – “hunting” a suspect, “horror” at the attack – has everyone in high alert mode, whether that is helpful or not. While I am very grateful that digital tools allow anyone to report any events from anywhere to anywhere, the way terrorist attacks are presented makes them seem significantly scarier than they are – there is, for example, very little that is “breakingly” new about terrorist methods.
Being scared and hectic does not help people make a critical, objective assessment of the situation. Even the police and bystanders took a while to recognise a “suspicious object” close to the Christmas market as a sleeping bag.
Social media reactions: sad, angry, solidarily
Twitter and Facebook users immediately react to what is happening, with their personal version of an all too familiar canon: people are sad and expressing empathy with the victims’ families, they are shocked, (sometimes they point out that many more people are dying at the same time in non-white countries without any public outrage), and then quickly angry. Angry at a person who took innocent lives, angry at authorities who did not prevent it, angry at someone – anyone – they can make responsible for such a horrible intrusion into their feeling of security. Anger is natural, and I guess necessary, but this is when the blame game starts – usually before any clarity on all the facts of the attack has been achieved.
The Blame Game
The blame game in Europe has, over the last few months or years, increasingly focused on just one group: “immigrants”, “refugees”, or “muslims”, perceived by a lot of people to be one and the same. And so it was no surprise at all when, about two hours after the Berlin attack, “growing indications that the lorry driver was Pakistani” were reported – though at this point, the police were investigating someone who looked like the person sprinting away from the truck. Why would the nationality of someone suspected of a terrorist attack be of such importance at this point, if not just because we have all become so used to hearing “foreigners” commit crimes? Why not report about growing indications that the lorry driver was of a certain age, or was not a truck driver by profession, or something like that?
In this case, the blame game jumped very quickly from “refugees” to “Merkel”. She is perceived by people, not even just the conservative ones, as the person responsible for literally everything migrants do in Europe. Even the Financial Times threw out the headline “compassion has a price” before anyone had any clear idea of who the perpetrator of the Berlin attack was. Now, just to get a few facts clear here, when Merkel let in almost 1 million asylum seekers into Germany in August 2015, she was complying with European and international human rights law where her neighbour governments were not, that is literally it. The price she payed is considerable, in backlash from political actors, but it was not related to the attack in Berlin at all.
More importantly, the person who supposedly drove that truck was soon after revealed as someone who had sought asylum and been rejected by both Italy and Germany, had an indeed indicative criminal record, and was thus not a “refugee” because that term means someone fleeing war and persecution. He also had entered Germany before Merkel’s sudden humanitarianism, and had simply not been deported because the respective authorities did not get the necessary paperwork done. Here is a very useful collection of facts and arguments (not “the” truth, but acceptable as one).
Everything is politics
The point is, though, that in the aftermath of terror attacks, everyone is very eager to jump to conclusions, promoting the kind of truth their political objectives would need.
Like Horst Seehofer, head of the “Christian Socialist” (i.e. very conservative) party, who demanded a change in immigration policy a mere few hours after the attack in Berlin. His suggested change to immigration policy in reaction to the attack is so obviously designed to find a scapegoat and rally people’s insecurities under his banner – he (or at least his advisors) know perfectly well that restricting immigration will not stop terrorism, but he knows it will gain him votes.
So that is the pattern we all loyally follow after every terrorist attack in Europe: Shock, sadness, anger, blame game, demand for policy change. The policy changes suggested, however, are not designed to fix the problem – to detect potential terrorists early, to prevent them from becoming dangerous, to diminish the grievances that brought their radicalisation about, whatever these may be (no I’m not suggesting we just let IS take whatever it wants, but that would merit a blog post by someone with more expertise). The policy changes suggested are those already on the table, those that politicians have attached their careers to, that are popular with voters. And those have obviously not prevented any attacks so far.
What our current reaction to terrorist attacks does not include, is a critical assessment of what exactly would need to happen in order for terrorists to not kill innocent people. At least that is not happening in the public eye. Western people have gotten used to quick and easy solutions being suggested by people who supposedly know what they are talking about, but it is unlikely any of these are sufficient – if it was easy, it would have been done. Truth is, you can’t put a lid on immigration, especially of asylum seekers, because it’s illegal and not practical. It would also not put a lid on terrorism, because all terrorism needs is people to scare, people to sacrifice themselves for their cause and enough room to communicate. Tackling terrorism is difficult. I have no clue what to do, but I am pretty sure the way we currently react to it is not leading anywhere. We are just fitting new pieces of evidence into old boxes – boxes labelled “immigrants are dangerous”, “IS is too powerful”, “police are not up to the task”, and “I should be scared”. We are not questioning our boxes, we are not learning from mistakes that have been made (yes dear Police, how did you find a suspects’ identification papers in the truck cabin a full two days later?).
Playing their game
Also, our reactions make us suspicious of one another.
Terror is meant to scare people and turn them against each other. Our fruitless debates, our blaming and meaningless throwing around of ascribed mistakes does exactly what terrorists want it to do.
That concerns those immediately blaming all refugees, or all migrants, or all muslims, or all with non-European physical features, just as much as those who criticise the latter. As much as tweets and statements such as these are indeed racist and unacceptable, labelling them as such only increases the divide between parts of society.