The murderous acts this week bring into sharp relief the threat in Europe and its neighbours from within and without. Within a few hours, three attacks splattered blood on the pavements of the region’s historic streets. Three men were shot and injured in an Islamic centre in Zurich. For the first time in almost 90 years, a Russian ambassador was shot dead; Moscow’s man in Turkey was assassinated at an Ankara art gallery by a local police officer who cried “don’t forget Syria!”. Then a large truck in central Berlin ploughed through one of Germany’s most hallowed holiday institutions, the Christmas market, killing 12 and injuring dozens. The roots of such violence can be traced to many things: religious extremism; fanatical ideology; poverty; disaffection. None can be used to excuse homicidal atrocities. When terrorists, rather than criminals, perpetuate violence, governments often respond in extraordinary ways.
This is the worry in Germany, which thanks to its emphasis on personal privacy and its open attitude to refugees has been seen as a liberal beacon in western Europe. Its politicians however have responded with calm and restraint. There has been nothing like the decision of the French government to declare a state of emergency and launch air strikes in Syria in late 2015 after terror attacks. Nor was Berlin closed down, like Brussels, which was in lockdown for three days during a terrorist manhunt last year. There will be, however, fallout. The Berlin truck attack is the worst the country has seen in recent years. A suicide bombing at a summer music festival this year in southern Germany killed only the terrorist. A few days earlier five people were injured in a knife attack on a train in Bavaria. Only the attacker died – shot by police. Like the suspect in the Christmas market, both the earlier militants were refugees who had recently arrived in the country. After the Berlin terrorist strike, the MEP husband of the far-right Alternative for Germany party leader tweeted an absurdly macabre taunt: “These are Merkel’s dead!” With a national election and a key regional poll looming in the country’s most populous state – one in which the truck bomber suspect stayed – the door is likely to be slammed shut on Berlin’s liberal asylum policy. The far-right across Europe are seeking to profit by stirring fears and insecurity. The Dutch rightwing populist Geert Wilders tweeted an image of Mrs Merkel covered in blood. Terror has impacted a continent’s capacity for altruism. The authoritarian populists want to unleash the state on their citizens, in the name of protecting their virtue. This is embodied by increasing snooping and social control. President-elect Donald Trump’s call for a Muslim database is disquieting for these reasons. Edward Snowden revealed America’s National Security Agency could collect 42bn internet records a month and 5bn mobile-phone location records a day in 2011. Yet terrorist outrages in the US continued.
In Germany, the worry is that the culture of privacy will be rolled back. The country’s strict data protection laws and restrictions on electronic surveillance are a historical legacy meant to deny the re-emergence of a powerful entity such as the Nazi Gestapo, or the East German Stasi. Yet two days after the Christmas market attack, Angela Merkel’s cabinet approved a bill which could herald a vast expansion of video surveillance cameras in public places. Thanks to its decentralised constitution, no one would be legally required to install them. The real issue, long acknowledged in Germany, is that policing – a function of local government – is often not a public spending priority. As Berlin’s Green party told the Guardian: “Increasing the number of police officers (is) much more important to help track down suspects.”
It helps to consider the sum of the facts rather than the sum of our fears. The University of Maryland calculates that 10,537 people were killed in 18,803 reported terror attacks between 1970 and the end of 2015. In western Europe, terrorist incidents were more common 40 years ago. But in a world of social media, panic and fright spreads faster, its velocity accelerated by the unhinged brutality of Islamic State. Protecting the public may mean greater intelligence sharing across Europe. It may mean some temporary restrictions on movement and public spaces. But expanding counterterrorism efforts should avoid casting Muslims, who are also often victims of terrorism and the target of hate crimes, as the enemy within. To shield us from an atomised, self-radicalised terrorist threat, we should not implement a strategy that will destroy a society it aims to protect.
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