Are we up to the task?

We must look beyond merely tightening controls to fight terrorism

Governments must hold their nerve and not make an already bad situation even worse
Governments must hold their nerve and not make an already bad situation even worse

A series of violent attacks has terrorised Europe in recent weeks. Frightening factors have conspired to create the conditions for an almost permanent scale of low-level violence, as well as large scale terror attacks, in Europe and other continents.  

Anyone born in the last 20 years has been overly exposed to what older generations might view as an era of unprecedented fear: terrorism, intolerance, militarism, nationalism, religious intolerance, growing inequality and much more.

But the world has been through worse periods. One doesn’t need to look too far back, with the 20th century witnessing the death of millions in two world wars and countless genocides. Even more recently, the 1970s and 1980s were also characterised by international terrorism and fear. 

Not all of it was imported from other continents, either. Radical political groups such as Italy’s Brigate Rosse or Germany’s Baader-Meinhoff, or separatist groups such as Spain’s ETA or the IRA in Northern Ireland, all serve as timely reminders that terrorism needs no foreign source to take root in any country.

This realisation brings with it the disconcerting notion that terrorism finds fertile ground in times of political and socio-economic upheaval. And yet, we must also keep in mind that in comparison with other continents, Europe is still a peaceful, stable and safe place. 

Homicide rates are among the lowest of any countries in the world, making Europe the preferred destination for many people fleeing terror in other parts of the world.

All the same, there are unmistakable symptoms of social unrest. The forthcoming elections in America, Germany, France and possibly the UK will be dominated by one single quandary: how can politics come to terms with a disenchanted population that feels insecure, excluded and ignored.

Europe’s populist, anti-immigrant and hawkish parties were already growing stronger on the back of economic sluggishness. Now, the rise of the far right in Europe and elsewhere is no longer a threat but is an unstoppable reality.

Nobody would be surprised if Donald Trump became President of the United States, or if Nigel Farage’s UKIP, Marine Le Pen’s Front National and the Alternative for Germany made substantial gains in the approaching elections. Coupled with anxieties about immigration, the recent spate of terrorism acts like a vicious circle… reinforcing the tensions that in turn fuel the rise of fascism.

For this reason alone, governments must hold their nerve and not make an already bad situation even worse. In the wake of the Nice and Berlin attacks, even otherwise moderate parties have upped the tempo of inflammatory rhetoric. German Chancellor Angela Merkel even made a connection between terrorism and the legitimate right to seek asylum in Europe. However, her claim that ‘terrorists were smuggled into Europe in the flow of asylum seekers’ flies in the face of all that we know of the nationality and provenance of the attackers in most of the recent cases. 

Far from reaching Europe through migration, many were second or third generation immigrants who were born, raised and educated in the local setting.

Instead of pointing indiscriminate fingers at a large category of mostly vulnerable people – often as not fleeing from conflicts in which Europe has had a hand in inflaming – it would be more helpful to admit that terrorist groups such as ISIS find it easy to recruit disgruntled Europeans to their cause… precisely because our system is failing entire contingents of people.

These categories are by no means limited only to immigrant communities. Estrangement and resentment for the political system is equally strong among native working classes in all shapes and forms, as well as among the sons and daughters of migrants. 

The fêted democratic system and globalisation have failed to deliver the promised jobs, security and prosperity, or to evenly and justly distribute the created wealth. 

As a result, people on the fringes of society and estranged citizens have turned to other solutions. We have seen people of all hues turn to violence and at times this has resulted in the death of many innocent victims.

It is worth bearing in mind that random acts of violence incite fear, regardless of whether they are politically, religiously or ideologically motivated. A lone gunman, who commits a massacre before turning the gun on himself, may have been motivated by nothing more ‘political’ than unemployment or a nervous breakdown. 

The effect of the massacre on the public’s peace of mind will however be just as severe. 

In such scenarios it is of course necessary to debate basic security issues, such as gun control and anti-terror measures. But we must look beyond merely tightening controls.

In its most extreme forms, social disaffection becomes a form of mental illness, often accompanied by other social ills such as broken families and drug and alcohol abuse.

We should therefore ask ourselves whether we are prepared to face such challenges. Are our health systems geared towards helping fragile people deal with the ever-changing pace of life? Are our economic policies condemning people to poverty and exclusion? Do we provide enough mental health services at community level? 

Before we can effectively fight terrorism, we must start questioning whether our society is up to the task.