Can European open societies deal with terrorism?

We will overcome the horrors while remaining true to our values

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What happened in Berlin is the latest in a concatenation of events that share a common theme. They are attacks against the very openness of the societies affected. In the twisted worldview of fundamentalism, in this case of the jihad sort, there can be no such thing as a plurality of views and attitudes towards life. Everything has to conform to a certain binary. ‘Followers’ and ‘apostates’. It is an absolute “we against them”, which culminates in hatred and violence towards the ‘other’, the aberration as they see it.

Europe has a past filled with that kind of absolutely exclusivist mentality. Two World Wars, fascism, and nazism, come to mind as recent cases. Societies have since evolved. They have learned to tolerate differences in opinion, political and cultural outlook, lifestyle and personal choice. Openness is their strength, for it reveals new horizons, opportunities for different forms of intersubjective experience.

The modern standard in the EU is for institutions that strengthen and promote this openness. The diversity of opinion is safeguarded by such principles as the freedom of expression and arrangements that foster media pluralism. Differences in political and cultural expression are protected by the very system of politics that is democracy as well as universal principles of law, such as the freedom of religion. The individual’s own attitudes are respected, be it in terms of recreational or intellectual activities, as well as sexual orientation. There may be exceptions, yet the norm, the standard Europe sets for itself is clear.

The threat of terror can change this. That is what extremists are hoping for. Fear will force people to turn inward, withdraw to themselves, their local community, their ostensibly ‘true’ identity. They want to turn tolerance into intolerance, by forcing the victims to treat all people of a certain religion or skin colour as a homogeneous group that cannot be disaggregated. Islamic State wants Europeans to see ‘foreigners’ or ‘Muslims’ as a threat in and of themselves, and to reject them at the outset.

Perception is all that matters. Once the open society starts to grow suspicious of some of its parts it will begin to crack and eventually implode. Its own reflexes of irrationality will take care of that. They will be made manifest as demagogues with an ultra-conservative and nationalist agenda, making fake promises galore. This is already underway. The political centre is shifting further to the right as the far-right gains momentum. The nationalists want to dismantle the EU’s various institutional arrangements as pertaining to democracy, fundamental rights, and the rule of law. They want to close borders and, usually in the form of a tacit suggestion, banish every social element that does not conform to their wicked conception of the national ‘normal’.

A problem of police and social policy

Such extremes are misguided. Nationalists have always had that kind of agenda. They just adapt it to the situation. There are better and less costly solutions, especially in a cultural sense. The open society does not have to turn into its nasty opposite in order to cope with terrorism. It has to address practical issues, as those pertain to social cohesion, public order and safety.

We see that attackers are individuals who are known to the authorities. Perhaps then, the police forces need to perform their role in a more timely or decisive fashion. This could mean investments in new equipment and human capital. At the European level, it is high time further progress be made to streamline police cooperation and intelligence sharing with the involvement of Europol. A single economic area cannot afford to be compartmentalised into a multitude of national police silos.

As for homegrown terrorists, Europe has to retroactively correct some its previous mistakes. The social and economic background of such groups needs to be scientifically examined. Anthropologists, economists, social scientists must work together to identify the underlying factors that make one susceptible to jihad extremism. We must understand the real reasons why a citizen of a state becomes alienated to the extent where they strive for the destruction of that state, even by giving up their life for it.

  • Are these people in persistent unemployment? Investments in new jobs and skills are required. Bring them into the fold. Introduce incentives for labour mobility. Some ad hoc variant of the Erasmus programme for workers. Be creative in order to show them the goods of the open society. Change in living conditions comes through collaboration and innovation.
  • Are they under-represented in their political communities, be it at the local or the national level? The rest of society must make sure that they are included in the commons and that politics is representative of social-cultural dynamics. Local authorities as well as progressive political parties could engage in constructive activism. Listen to them. Work with them to tackle the various challenges they are confronted with. Make them feel engaged. A part of the body politic.

More generally, the debate needs to shift towards the fundamental issues involved. Political initiatives and the necessary social work must follow from there.

Avoid sweeping generalisations

German Chancellor Merkel is being attacked for her open doors policy towards migrants and refugees. It would be an egregious error to give in to such reactions. These are driven by fear, without having thought through the consequences of their proposed actions. Should we Europeans let all Syrian refugees perish? Have you not seen the images and video footage that come out of Aleppo? And that is just a sample of the war that has dragged on for all these years. Will you console yourselves with the lie that is a morally-neutral approach to border management?

Then there are the economic issues, which should not be underestimated. Europe is an ageing continent. Its demographic outlook shows that new labour must be imported, otherwise the social welfare system will become dysfunctional. Migration is needed, but does not have to take place in accordance with some neoliberal fantasy. Labour rights and workplace standards must remain in tact. The efforts need to be towards ensuring that migrants are integrated into their new country. They learn its rules, its norms, the language, and so on. Once again, the discussion has to be on the right policy mix, not sweeping generalisations and racism.

United in diversity

The open society that most of Europe stands for can survive the terrorist onslaught. But ‘survival’ must also have a normative midpoint. It cannot aim for the lowest possible outcome of pure instinct. Reason must be the guide. Tolerance, pluralism, democracy, fundamental rights, and the rule of law are Europe’s strengths. These are the values we want our life to be governed by. The moral achievements we stand for and wish to improve even further.

Jihadists would want us to be just like them. To adopt a binary worldview where we cannot discern any differences between people. We are better than that. Terrorism is a challenge we face together as free people. Unlike extremists we can differentiate between permutations in outlook and opinion. We can celebrate diversity, for it is our commitment to universal principles that unites us.

How we choose to deal with this threat will tell a lot about ourselves. Do we submit to barbarism by adopting excessive and indiscriminate measures? Or do we see things rationally and try to formulate policies that address real problems, prevent their re-emergence, and strengthen the very openness we cherish? I believe the latter is the only course of action that is consistent with our values and practical reasonableness.