Just 10 seconds into a conversation with a colleague at the EP in Strasbourg, she told me she was afraid of terrorism and that she watches every passenger in the tram closely and plans to start walking to work from next week onwards.
The train from Brussels to Strasbourg was half empty; most of the staff travelled by car.
The majority of groups which had booked to visit the EP in December and January have cancelled their plans.
A young journalist posts in Brussels that all the soldiers on the street don’t make her feel safer either, and 1000 kilometres away in Austria an old manager totally freaks out at these attempts to “play things down”.
You can try putting things in perspective by telling them that many more people die each year in traffic accidents or from air pollution in France than through attacks, that smoking on an evening out in Paris is statistically more dangerous than bombs, that driving to Strasbourg is in any event riskier than taking the train… but it’s no use. It is not a rational assessment of risk. The fear has turned into panic. And that is a problem.
Fear in the face of danger is an important emotion. You need it in order to summon all your strength and to focus on finding a solution. To save yourself. Panic is the opposite in that it causes you to do something rash and die. You cannot afford to panic on the front line. You need fear.
Fear might prompt you, for example, to push for a situation where 28 pieces of administrative machinery cooperate at last. If a suspected terrorist had to be found very quickly today, there is no possible way of investigating the data already held on file all over Europe. A suspect from Paris can be registered in Vienna, Riga or Athens and the police in Paris cannot get that information at the press of a button. The effort involved in linking administrations with completely different databases across language barriers is overwhelming, but fear could give you the energy to do it.
Governments reacting in panic opt for the easy fix of data retention for a more dramatic media response, insisting on more data, on more surveillance, and on a larger haystack in which they certainly will not find the needle in an emergency.
Generating panic is the deliberate intention of Daesh and Al-Qaeda. The terrorists are very media-savvy, a skill not yet acquired by the public. Or let’s just say that an adjustment to the new situation is still needed.
There were more terrorist attacks in the 1970s in Europe than there are today. From Baader-Meinhof and Brigate Rosse right through to the IRA and the PLO, many different organisations believed in “propaganda by the deed”. But that was a time when the state had a monopoly over the radio waves and the printing press. Hours would elapse between an attack and the report. And the next “update” would be 24 hours later. Pictures and film clips were edited and anyone wanting to participate in the “discussion” had to write a letter to the editor and wait days for it to be published.
Nowadays victims of terrorism tweet live from the place where they are being held hostage, passers-by publish videos recorded on their mobile phones, and executions are uploaded onto YouTube even before the corpse has been recovered. And the commercial media go live to the events. The ORF was criticised during the Paris attacks because it didn’t have a special broadcast.
Let’s be clear: I use the modern-day media and I think it is a huge step forward and a benefit for democratic politics. I don’t want a handful of key players to control the media coverage, not even in the case of terrorism.
But as members of the public, as citizens and also – most importantly – as private individuals, we need to be media-savvy. We may be afraid but we should not get into a panic.
We are lagging behind in this respect, but the good news is that it need not stay like this. I don’t think it will stay like this. It is possible to learn to deal with fear.
Last year I went to the Middle East several times. I was in Erbil/Sinjar, Suruc/Kobane and Beirut/Golan. Naturally the people are afraid if thousands of IS militants are only 30 km from the town or have already reached the houses on the edge of the town, or if they have to shop at the same markets where attacks have already taken place leaving hundreds dead. But they keep calm. They adapt their behaviour so as to minimise the risk to which they are exposed but otherwise to allow them to live as normal a life as possible.
For many, the response also involves eventually coming to a decision to risk one dangerous journey with their children over the Mediterranean Sea instead of having to go to Beirut with them every day to be among the crowds.
This can be a very rational decision.
An EP official didn’t come to Strasbourg but instead he took vacation and is spending a few weeks in his weekend home. Is that rational or is it panic? They check the handbags of my colleagues on their way into the EP but they were not checked when they boarded the shuttle service which brought them to the EP… rational? The USA has issued a worldwide travel warning. Panic?
Propaganda by the deed is the most powerful weapon which small extremist groups currently have, irrespective of the ideology which they espouse. It works so it is copied. If we wipe out one terrorist group, three others will take up this line of attack. The attacks will become increasingly dramatic in future. You don’t need to be a terrorism expert to predict this; you just need to know a bit about political PR.
We need to be more media-savvy so that, at some stage, attacks of this kind are no longer “worthwhile”. I fear that this will take a long time; there will need to be a new generation which grows up learning how to deal with this.
A dreadful prospect. Now that is something to be afraid of. But any democracy which hits the panic button will die.