Will Europe embrace fear, or freedom?

22 Nov 2015

 

All of Europe is on high alert. Since the terrorist atrocities in Paris, the entire continent appears to have been doused in a febrile atmosphere of panic.

 

President Francois Hollande has declared a state of emergency across France for the next three months, imposing curfews, closing down public buildings, banning protests and increasing armed police presence on the streets. Extra, airport-style security has been installed at the Coliseum in Rome. An annual student festival in the centre of Brussels has been cancelled, while the city’s Metro and even car parks are now closed.

 

Airport terminals in Copenhagen and London have been abruptly evacuated after suspicious package alerts. Belgium has increased its terror threat level, warning citizens to avoid crowds and public spaces where armoured vehicles and military personnel mingle with the depleted numbers of early Christmas shoppers. Sweden has claimed that it has received intelligence of a planned attack. Prominent football matches and other sporting events have been cancelled across Europe, including the last-minute postponement of an international football fixture in Hannover, Germany.

 

Everyday life in the sprawling cosmopolitan capitals of Europe has changed. Normal life is on pause. Going to the cinema, gathering in central squares, attending the synagogue, riding the subway, hanging about in cafes, wandering the streets at night – each of these activities, usually so normal and banal, has become a small act of defiance. As the BBC’s Katya Adler observes, ‘there is a sense of vulnerability across Europe’.

 

The authorities are right to be on high alert. The risks of further attacks are clear and well-known. However, the palpable sense of popular fear across the continent, while understandable, is not healthy. In fact, it is seriously counter-productive.

 

As Fawaz Gerges (Professor of International Relations at the London School of Economics) notes, increased security measures and heightened vigilance fuels a vicious, downward spiral of hyperbole, hysteria and fear.

 

“We must not exaggerate the security risk,” he says. “We must not be in fear of our lives –that is exactly what they [ISIS] are trying to do.

 

“If you ask me what is the strategic message of the so-called Islamic State, I would say they want to instil fear. They want to terrorise European and Middle-Eastern societies – whether Beirut or Paris – that’s what they want.

 

“We must not allow them to do so. We must live our lives normally and find ways and means to prevent radicalisation that has taken place in many societies.”

 

Gerges’ plea, for all its wisdom, prudence and caution is, sadly, falling on deaf ears. For all the platitudinous pleas of ‘unity’ and ‘courage’ in the wake of Friday’s attacks, the reality of action has been somewhat different to the intent of the rhetoric.

 

Both governments and citizens have en masse acted to fundamentally change their daily routines and violate their deeply-held principles – banning public demonstrations, calling off public events, avoiding public places, ramping up state surveillance, heavily militarising the urban environment – all because of fear. People are cowed and cowering.

 

If Gerges is right, that ISIS’ primary objective is to spread fear and division, to force Europe to change how it behaves and even how it thinks, then they have already been successful. Not only did a handful of alienated, angry and hateful individuals murder dozens of innocents, but the crimes they committed have succeeded in fermenting new hatred against Europe’s Muslims and precipitating a climate of fear in all of Europe’s major cities. The Europe we knew prior to Friday’s horrors in Paris – a multicultural, tolerant continent of open borders and warm hearts – is dead. What comes next is still in flux.

 

The dream of the European Union: a continent united, prosperous and at peace, was already under great strain because of the Eurozone, Ukraine and refugee crises. Now it seems like a utopian vision belonging to another age. Schengen, the historic agreement between 26 European nations which permits passport-free travel from the north of Finland to the south of Spain, once lauded as the greatest accomplishment of the supranational European project, is now condemned as the supposed cause of recent terrorist atrocities.

 

Talks are allegedly underway between five core EU members — Germany, Austria, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg — about the formation of a so-called “mini-Schengen”. In other words, the other 21 Schengen member states would, in a dramatic move, be chucked out of the open borders zone. The system is already in doubt as numerous Balkan and Eastern European Schengen states have refused entry to Middle Eastern refugees or blocked their passage with border checks and barbed wire.

 

If the free movement of goods and people across Europe is dead, then the EU itself is surely dead. And, for many, the idea of Europe itself will be buried too. This is not simply a crucial moment for Europe’s present security, but it is also a critical period for Europe’s very identity and future.

 

As callous or even reckless as it might sound, any free, open and democratic civilisation will always face threats of violence. The myth of a future without risk is a dangerous mirage. Perhaps the only state on earth which does not face a (non-state) terrorist threat is North Korea. Our freedoms will only disappear if we allow them to.

 

On the eve of the First World War in 1914, as the continent hurtled tragically towards conflict, British Foreign Minister Sir Edward Grey looked morosely out of a window in the Foreign Office into the dusk and remarked, ‘The lights are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our life-time’. Today, as Europe fears the closeness of bloodshed once again, it seems as though the walls are going up and the doors are being closed all over the continent. Old walls and defences are being re-erected; old fears and suspicions resuscitated.  

 

At times like these, as difficult as it might be, Europe must heed the famous words of a voice from across the Atlantic. At the height of the Great Depression, when society appeared to be degenerating into wholesale panic, when the future looked nothing but bleak, U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt told his country: "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself". And he was right. For it is fear which makes us lose sense of who are really are. A fearful Europe is no Europe at all.

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