I live a mile away from Breitscheidplatz in Berlin, where 12 people were killed on Monday night after a lorry drove into a Christmas market. I could hear church bells ringing, odd at that time, and then my phone began to vibrate. It was Facebook, asking me to mark myself safe during “the violent incident in Berlin, Germany”, a request I ignored until family and friends began to call. Finally, to calm the nerves of my loved ones, I relented, but it felt important to resist hysteria in the wake of this deadly attack. Terrorism, after all, is designed to provoke fear.
After the Paris attacks last November it was widely accepted that Berlin would be the next target. For a while I even avoided Alexanderplatz, which everyone agreed was the likeliest target, but then I gave up. There are no precautions that ordinary people can take against the terrorist attacks that are now almost routine for first world, city dwellers, and the response is always the same, an exercise in controlled, ritualised hysteria. First panic, then shock, and then the search for someone to blame.
The existence of social media means this pattern becomes amplified across the globe. By Tuesday morning, despite the absence of any evidence, the US President-elect Donald Trump had already made a statement about how “Islamist terrorists continually slaughter Christians”. Marcus Pretzell, a member of Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), the fast-rising face of Germany’s populist right, tweeted that the victims were “Merkels tote”, Merkel’s dead — a reference to her “open door” immigration policy which saw almost one million refugees enter the country in 2015. Marine le Pen and Nigel Farage issued similar statements, while Geert Wilders tweeted a photoshopped picture of Merkel with her hands, face and clothes covered in blood. For months I have listened to activists in Germany arguing that Merkel has not done enough to help refugees, but suddenly my sympathies were with her. This, in turn, is what the far right does, it pushes centrists to the right, and leftists to the centre.
The populist right have made significant political gains across Europe this year. And as of January 20, 2017, they will have a potential ally in the White House. Trump has prevailed by ignoring evidence and rejecting reasoned dialogue, dismissing fact-checkers and official accounts, replacing them with his own often outlandish narratives. The same traits are demonstrated in the response to this latest tragedy. Although Islamic State has now claimed responsibility, there is, as yet, no evidence of their involvement. But the populist right seem determined to strengthen their power through the manipulation of fear. Either you placate the rabble we have roused or we will, is their message.
Whether in Syria, or in Berlin, or in Washington, populist politicians use extremist attacks to carve fault lines between humans who, in fact, have far more in common with each other than with those who claim to represent them. By dangling a purely illusory security before our eyes, they succeed in becoming less accountable, transforming us from autonomous citizens into willing pawns in the supposed war between Christendom and Islam.
The truth is that we are never safe, not from extremist attacks and not from so-called “hate crimes”. Like many people of colour there are sections of Berlin that I view as no-go areas; I have had the word “auslander” [foreigner] yelled at me from passing cars, and once, in Mitte, was surrounded at an ATM by skinheads, screaming abuse. On another occasion, ten years ago, I was waiting for a bus in an east German town after my train service ended unexpectedly, and ended up crouched behind a stone wall as a crowd of perhaps 20 neo-Nazis headed towards a bar. They saw me after I had boarded the bus and began running in my direction; had the vehicle stopped at traffic lights, I could have been killed.
As a result of the far right’s divisive rhetoric, the lives of not only Muslim refugees but all ethnic minorities in Germany are in far greater danger now. In 2015, instances of hate-related assault increased in Berlin from 179 to 320, and the fear is that this will only continue to rise, particularly after the gains made in recent Berlin elections by the AfD, whose leader Frauke Petry caused controversy earlier this year by saying that police should shoot at refugees who try to enter Germany illegally. Interior Ministry data showed that there were twice as many far right rallies in the last quarter of 2015 than in the year before, many of which were orchestrated by Pegida who, as of July, announced its intention to found its own political party and join forces with the AfD.
This is why I was loathe to mark myself safe on Facebook on Monday night. The far right are intent on making Germany a more dangerous place to live. So long as we continue to respond to terror attacks with hatred and hysteria, we play not only into their hands, but into the hands of the terrorists themselves.
Rajeev Balasubramanyam is a Berlin-based author. He tweets @Rajeevbalasu.