“Stay at home and don’t spread rumours,” Berlin’s police chief tweeted last night as news spread of the shockingly violent assault on a Christmas market. The incident, now being widely described as a deliberate attack, happened just after 8pm local time in Breitscheidplatz, at the foot of the famous bombed-out Kaiser Wilhelm church, in the heart of west Berlin’s fanciest shopping area.
The police are emphasising that investigations are still under way and that no conclusions should yet be drawn. A passenger in the Polish-registered truck is reportedly dead. Its driver, reported to be “an Afghan and a refugee” and possibly a hijacker, is under arrest. With at least 12 people dead and perhaps 50 people injured, Berlin’s mayor, Michael Müller, was quick to arrive at the scene. He told journalists:
It’s just terrible to see this. It is very depressing, a shock, because we have always hoped that this situation wouldn’t happen in Berlin.
Well, it now has, in the much-loved city where I have been visiting and working for the past three decades. The political consequences of the attack are naturally hard to predict. But some things can be said with certainty. None of them is easy to swallow.
Whoever the attacker(s) are, and whatever their motives may have been, the parallels with the truck attack earlier this year on Bastille Day crowds, in the French city of Nice, are unavoidable. Nice’s mayor, Christian Estrosi, has already drawn that analogy in a tweet: “Horror in Berlin. Support for the mayor of Berlin and the German people. Never again.”
When that comparison is made, the Berlin violence bodes ill for an already troubled Germany, and for the rest of a deeply troubled Europe. The heartbreaking attack is yet another example of a violent media event with a global footprint, a vicious attack that was ruthlessly calculated, carried out in cold blood, and daringly simple. It was designed not just to spoil the Christmas market fun of Berliners. It was aimed at the heart of the most un-German city, which has suffered modern war and violence many times over, a place and a people renowned for their robust multiculturalism and resilient toleration of differences.
There’s a good chance that Berlin citizens will display a measure of detachment from the language of shock and disapprobation that will surely sweep through the country, and the rest of Europe, during the coming days. We should hope that a local version of Sydney’s #illridewithyou citizens’ initiative will spring up out of the carnage. Given its history, there’s a good chance that a majority of Berlin citizens will reject the bigoted reactions that are surely coming. Their cool-headed detachment will be needed, because as the news from Berlin wafts like a toxic cloud through Germany, and across the rest of Europe, many strange things are now going to happen.
There may be journalists and politicians who misinterpret the attack as the work of “lone wolves” and “disturbed” individuals. That kind of talk overlooks the larger pattern, the shootings and knifings, the hostage taking, bombings and truck attacks that have already taken place in cities such as Brussels, Köln, Nice, Dijon, Nantes, London and Paris. More urban savagery is surely on its way.
During the coming days and weeks, mainstream media narratives in Germany and elsewhere will no doubt describe all this violence as “inhuman” (strange language, as if “humanity” has a perfect track record in the field of non-violence). There will be talk of threats to “Germany” and the “German way of life”. And if the violence does indeed turn out to be a deliberate attack, and if it is claimed by, or somehow connected to, an Islamic group, there’ll be no end of mutterings and murmurings about the “jihadist cancer” (Rupert Murdoch’s words) spreading through our world.
North Rhine-Westphalia’s minister of the interior, Ralf Jäger, has already described the violence as an act of “terrorism”. President-elect Donald Trump is not far behind. The post-truth ventriloquist is saying that the Berlin carnage is a “terror attack”. It is yet more proof that “Islamist terrorists” slaughter Christians “as part of their global jihad” and (says a tweet) a wake-up call that the “civilized world must change thinking!”
Yes, a change of thinking is badly needed. But a major problem with this kind of incendiary language is its ignorance of the undeniable fact that Muslim radicalism and violence in Europe and elsewhere are being fuelled by the bigoted fear and hatred of Islam whipped up by the “war on terror”, and by populist parties now operating in practically every European country.
In most parts of the European Union, where more than 20 million Muslim people now dwell, Muslim baiting has become a popular sport. Organised suspicion, insult and denigration of Islam are spreading. The bigotry, in Germany as elsewhere in Europe, is the new anti-Semitism that is being peddled, sadly and strangely, by free speech champions, who wilfully muddle the difference between speech that unsettles the powerful and speech that vilifies the powerless.
As more details of the Berlin violence come to hand, we’ll know better what kind of attack this is, and why it happened. The death and maiming of innocent citizens at the foot of the Kaiser Wilhelm church is nevertheless a clear reminder to Berliners, and to thinking citizens everywhere, that civil society and its rules of peaceful civility and the public embrace of difference are gossamer-thin constructions. They are precious customs with no historical guarantees.
The Berlin carnage equally serves as a reminder that European civil societies have their dark side, which are less than civil, not only in their maltreatment and denigration of Muslims, but also in the willingness of their citizens to embrace authoritarian methods of policing and surveillance.
Attacks like the one in Berlin harm democracy because they spread fear and self-censorship among citizens. Just as threatening is the way they strengthen the hand of the garrison state. Dawn police raids, red alerts and security checks are bad for democracy. So are drones and helicopters hovering overhead, troops on the streets, gun battles and, worst of all, the military siege mentality that is settling not just on Muslim minorities, but on the democratic rights of each and every citizen.
There’s a final reason why the murderous attacks in Berlin matter politically. Germany and the rest of Europe are passing through a black swan moment when democratic values and institutions are being challenged frontally by anti-immigrant, Muslim-baiting populism. With general elections less than a year away, the populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) and its support groups are riding high in their political saddles. In September’s regional elections in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, where Angela Merkel’s own constituency is located, the AfD managed to push her CDU party into third place. After Berlin, high on the opium of general disaffection with the way things are going in Germany, the AfD and its many fringe group supporters will likely ride even higher.
What is this AfD phenomenon, which is not just a German peculiarity? The short answer is that it has potentially wide public appeal because it means many different things to so many different people. It attracts the “angry citizen” (Wutbürger) from many different walks of life. In the ranks of the party and the movement are small-business people, football fans, educated middle-class intellectuals and opponents of factory farming. There are neo-Nazis, Christians, Putin sympathisers, street hooligans and the rich upper middle class.
AfD supporters and sympathisers may seem a motley crew, but they have important things in common. They’re against the grand coalition government led by Angela Merkel. They are generally annoyed with politicians and the political establishment. They curse the “lying media”. They’re sure the prevailing party system doesn’t represent either their material interests or their gut feeling that their own nation is drowning in the rising tides of Islam. They particularly object to Merkel’s decision last year to open Germany’s borders to more than a million asylum seekers.
AfD supporters are the Pied Pipers of the new anti-Muslim bigotry, the feeling that Muslims are taking over Europe. They see no need for a New Deal with Muslims, which is in fact what the whole European region now so urgently needs. They say they respect people of the Muslim faith. Then they add in the next breath that they’ve had enough of Muslim asylum seekers, even if they’ve fled for their lives from the war-zone hell of Syria and Iraq.
The new German populists side with people who are just like themselves: good people who are white, upright, German-speaking and hard-working citizens. They say they now want their homeland back. They think of themselves as people of The People. They consider themselves rightful owners of their country. They want to turn back the clock. They want to move forward by stepping back in time, into a world where The People supposedly once ruled, and will now rule again. That’s why they’ll surely try to feed like parasites off the Berlin attack, and why they are dangerous for democracy.
This column piece is part of the Democracy Futures series, a joint global initiative with the Sydney Democracy Network. The series aims to stimulate fresh thinking about the many challenges facing democracies in the 21st century.