20 December 2016

Attacks like Berlin are horrifying precisely because they are so rare


It happens the same way each time. Families, couples and friends strolling and laughing. The chatter and patter of street vendors, the delicious curling aromas of confectionery and cooked meat. A communal sense of relaxation and a happy holiday vibe: people switching off from all the stresses and strains of their lives, if only for a few days.

Then the noise. It’s the noise that people clock first, because the sight of an enormous truck scattering humans like ninepins is just too hard to process. The bang-bang-bang of repeated impacts, the metallic crunching. And the screams, of course. Always the screams, segueing into the first distant sirens.

On Bastille Day, it was the Promenade des Anglais in Nice. Yesterday, it was the Christmas market in Berlin’s Breitscheidplatz. Next time – and there will be a next time, of that you can be sure – it will be somewhere else. This is our new terrorism: always adapting, always evolving.

Terrorist targets used to be predictable: military installations, government buildings, business premises, transport termini.

Next came the tourist destinations: Bali, Sharm-el-Sheikh, Tunisia. Then the ostensibly random urban attacks: Mumbai, Nairobi, Paris. With each iteration came the shrinking of what we might call “safe space”.

And now terrorists don’t even need traditional weapons. Why would they, when an articulated lorry can cause such atrocious carnage? Eighty-six killed and more than 400 injured in Nice. At least 12 killed and 48 injured in Berlin.

In a place crowded with pedestrians but with easy vehicular access, a lorry is a grimly perfect weapon. They are easy to find, whether through hire, theft or hijack. They require minimal training to drive. They’re so commonplace as to negate suspicion until it’s too late.

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Getting hold of a truck minimises the risk of exposure to the authorities, unlike assembling explosives or obtaining firearms. Yet in attacks like these there’s something atavistic, almost primal, about a lorry’s size and malevolence, as though it’s some force of nature or Godzilla-style movie monster.  To most of us, that’s appalling. To a homicidal driver, it’s appealing.

The identity of yesterday’s driver, let alone his motivation, remains unknown. We can guess that he will be in some way disaffected, disillusioned and disappointed. He may be a card-carrying member of an extremist Islamist organisation, or an unaffiliated lone wolf.

Yet the semantics of actual membership are moot. Even the lone wolves are inspired – and exploited – by the hideously slick propaganda of Islamic State and its ilk.

In last month’s edition of Isis’s magazine, Rumiyah, the cover pictured a rental truck and a Thanksgiving Day parade in New York. Very few people, said the article inside, “actually comprehend the deadly and destructive capability of the motor vehicle and its capacity of reaping large numbers of casualties if used in a premeditated manner”. It described in almost pornographic terms how, as in the Nice attacks, the vehicle would advance forward, smashing the unbelievers’ bodies with its “strong outer frame” while “crushing their heads, torsos, and limbs under the vehicle’s wheels and chassis”.

It was also last month that the State Department advised tourists in Europe to “exercise caution at holiday festivals, events, and outdoor markets” for fear that terrorists would use “both conventional and non-conventional weapons”. “Non-conventional” used to mean nuclear weapons. Now it means an 18-wheeler.

But what, exactly, should we do? How, exactly, should we “exercise caution”?

There are three categories of response: political, security and social.

The political is already playing out in terms which will surprise no one, especially in this most fractious of years: centrist politicians calling for calm and unity while those on the far-Right sow hatred – or, depending on your viewpoint, deluded elitists glossing over the reality while castigating critics of unchecked immigration.

The security response is harder to judge. On one level, measures can be taken to minimise the chances of further attacks (as the “ring of steel” around our own City of London has shown.) Roads can be narrowed and redesigned, and access points can be restricted: just as mobile phone masts are often disguised, so too can blast walls and bollards be hidden behind murals and foliage.

But this is expensive and disruptive, and many authorities may understandably consider it not worth the time or money when set against the relatively small chance of an attack.

For that is what should, above all, inform our social response, be it collective or individual – that these events are horrifying precisely because they are so uncommon. More Americans die of heart disease every 36 hours than were killed on 9/11. As many people die on the roads of France every fortnight as perished in the Paris attacks last year. Britons are as likely to die from bee stings as from terrorist attacks, which is to say very unlikely indeed.

Our perceptions of the terrorist threat are skewed by media coverage which makes the rare seem routine and the routine seem rare. But you, me, and the vast majority of us will die far more prosaic and far less dreadful deaths.

The slogan “Keep Calm and Carry On” may be hideously overused, but it also has its merits, especially at times like this.

Those of us old enough to remember the IRA’s mainland campaign of the 1970s and 1980s also remember the stoically defiant manner in which each new attack was usually greeted: a grimly humorous “still not scared” kind of attitude.

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These are our places, the cities where terrorists choose to strike. The seafront at Nice where the beautiful people play beneath the hot summer sun, or the mulled wine and homemade wooden toys of the Berlin Christmas market. These are the edifices of our lives and collective memories: Paris for a lovers’ weekend, the twin lines of bricks in the pavement which marks the path where the Berlin Wall ran.

So when these cities are attacked, we are attacked too.

But we have seen worse. The Berlin attack took place in the shadow of the Kaiser Wilhelm memorial church. It has famously been left unreconstructed and unrepaired from the damage it sustained at the hands of the RAF in 1943, in order to remind future generations of the folly of warfare and fanaticism.

“This church tower is a symbol of peace,” Anselm Lange, the president of the church community, said. “To choose a place like this for a premeditated attack goes utterly against the spirit that radiates from this place and it will take a great deal of effort to keep that spirit.”

It will indeed. But if we lose that spirit, then we lose everything.

Boris Starling is an author, journalist and screenwriter who also consults for companies and think tanks.