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Terror will not break Berlin's open and tolerant spirit

Berliners know that extremist attacks are aimed at disrupting Germany’s welcoming attitude to refugees and asylum seekers.

Winding my way towards west Berlin on the S-Bahn the morning after an articulated lorry ploughed through an annual Christmas market, slaughtering 12 innocent people and injuring dozens of others, felt surreally like any other weekday morning. A typically diverse array of locals occupied the seats around me, most dressed in warm, dark-coloured clothing designed to do battle with the chilly temperatures, staring bleakly out at the city’s dull metallic skies or into the wan glow of their mobile phones.

Unlike in Paris and Brussels following recent attacks, there was no immediate sign of any increased security presence, though the site of the incident (Breitscheidplatz, close to the Berlin Zoo) was cordoned-off and busy with a mixture of armed police and clusters of onlookers who grimly surveyed the scene, took photos and added a flower or candle to one of the makeshift memorials.

The heavy fog that clung to the tops of the buildings wasn’t so usual though, and the way it shrouded the glass cupola of the famous Reichstag as the train carried me through the centre felt like an apt metaphor, on a morning during which many in the German capital were doubtless dwelling on the tragic events of the night before and pondering the possible political implications.

While many in the German and right-wing international media have been blaming Angela Merkel's "open door" policy on migrants for the attack —  almost a million refugees and asylum seekers have entered the country since 2015 — Berliners have something of a special relationship with refugees. Some 80,000 are currently living here, more than any other German city, with around half residing in temporary shelters as they wait for their applications to be accepted or rejected: increasing numbers have been turned away in recent months, which many believe to be a political compromise after a series of smaller refugee-related attacks around the country.

The news that a Tunisian asylum seeker, who is reported to have been shot dead in Milan this morning, is the prime suspect for carrying out the attack confirms the fears expressed by the German Chancellor in her statement on Tuesday: “I know that it would be particularly difficult for all of us to bear if it would be confirmed that this deed was carried out by a person who sought protection and asylum in Germany,” she said. Merkel was aware that such a scenario would play directly into the hands of her critics — in particular the populist right-wing group AfD (Alternative for Germany), which has campaigned heavily on an anti-immigration platform since its formation in 2013. 

For the most part, the city has drawn on its reputation as a tolerant, open and inherently multicultural place (its demographic includes significant Middle Eastern, Asian and Eastern European communities) to help many settle and integrate into the city. As well as shorter-term assistance such as donating clothes or food, there have also been longer-term, grassroots projects like the award-winning Give Something Back To Berlin, which encourages integration via regular language, cooking and social-themed meet-ups, as well as creative responses from refugees themselves, including an app created by Syrians that helps navigate Germany’s typically burdensome bureaucracy. Even the city’s clubbing community has made an effort with the Plus 1 campaign, which has raised over 125,000 euros by charging a minimal fee for guestlist spots and then donating it to refugee causes.

The more intensive levels of integration already established in Berlin, as well as the famously world-weary attitude of its inhabitants — many of whose families have lived through war and division themselves — no doubt plays into the city’s somewhat muted reaction to the attack. Berliners know through their own experience that the vast majority of refugees just want an opportunity to live normal, regular lives without fear of being bombed or oppressed; they are aware that organised terrorist activities are aimed precisely at disrupting Germany’s “Willkommenskultur” ("welcome culture") and a subsequent air of defiance — even nonchalance — has been discernible alongside the sadness and quiet air of caution.

Although the evening following the attacks saw the Christmas markets close early at the request of city officials, and various vigils take place around the city to pay tribute to those killed — including a major one inside the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church at the site of the attack, which has been a symbol of peace since being partially destroyed in the Second World War — the city has quickly returned to its typical pre-Christmas atmosphere.

By Wednesday the markets were open again and Berliners came out in force to visit them and show the world — and especially the terrorists — that they would not be abandoning their traditions or seasonal spirit so easily. The usual flurries of activity could be found around the shopping and cultural areas and Christmas decorations continued to shine from the city’s 19th-century tenements and GDR-era high rises.

Perhaps the most telling sign that terror will not shake the resolve of the locals, nor deter them from their collective desire to help those fleeing war-ravaged regions, came on Wednesday night when anti-refugee demonstrations at Breitscheidplatz were met with much larger counter-demonstrations demanding unity and a continued respect for human rights.

A German proverb states: "fear makes the wolf look bigger than he is". While it seems the wolves have never been closer to the door, Berliners are doing their bit to resist fear and stay focused on humanity.

Paul Sullivan is a freelance journalist based in Berlin.

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Americans are more likely to be attacked by far-right terrorists than Islamists

Trump says silent because “radical Islamic terrorists” aren’t part of his voting base – and “white supremacist terrorists” are.

Remember how Donald Trump used to accuse the Democrats of political correctness on the subject of terrorism? “These are radical Islamic terrorists and she won’t even mention the word and nor will President Obama,” declaimed the then Republican presidential candidate in his second debate against Hillary Clinton in October 2016.

But what about Trump’s own political correctness? Over the course of his 14 months in office, the president has pointedly refused to use the term “white supremacist terrorist”. He has turned a blind eye to a wave of shootings, stabbings and bombings carried out not by radicalised Muslims but by radicalised white men. He has ignored the fact – documented in a range of studies – that Americans are much more likely to be the victims of a “white supremacist terrorist” than a “radical Islamic terrorist”. (According to the Investigative Fund, an independent journalism organisation, “far-right plots and attacks outnumber Islamist incidents by almost two to one.”)

And the reason for Trump’s PC position? It’s straightforward – if scary. “Radical Islamic terrorists” aren’t part of his base. “White supremacist terrorists” are.

Don’t take my word for it. “Donald Trump is setting us free,” wrote a jubilant Andrew Anglin, founder of a neo-Nazi website, the Daily Stormer, last summer. “It’s fair to say that if the Trump team is not listening to us directly (I assume they are), they are thinking along very similar lines.”

The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), which monitors hate groups and extremists, agrees. “If 2016 was the year of white supremacists being electrified by the rise of Donald Trump, his inauguration in January sent them into a frenzy,” it noted. “They believed they finally had a sympathiser in the White House and an administration that would enact policies to match their anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim and racist ideas.” The SPLC pointed out that “hate crimes in the six largest US cities were up 20 per cent from 2016”.

According to the Extremist Crime Database, the far right carried out nine fatal attacks in the US in 2017. In February of that year, Adam Purinton shot two Indian men, one of whom was killed, at a restaurant in Kansas, reportedly yelling “get out of my country” and “terrorist” before opening fire.

In March 2017, James H Jackson, an avid reader of the Daily Stormer, fatally stabbed an elderly African-American man in New York, after travelling from Baltimore to kill as many black men as possible and “make a statement”, according to the authorities.

In May, Jeremy Joseph Christian, an admirer of both Trump and the Oklahoma City bomber, Timothy McVeigh, was charged with stabbing two men to death on a train in Portland, Oregon, after they tried to prevent him from harassing two female passengers who appeared to be Muslim.

In August, James Fields Jr, a proud neo-Nazi, was charged with killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer after allegedly driving his car into a crowd in Charlottesville, Virginia, which had gathered to protest against a white supremacist rally. (“You also had some very fine people on both sides,” Trump would later remark .)

In December, a 17-year-old boy who had mowed a swastika into the grass of a community field was charged with murdering his girlfriend’s parents after they objected to their teenage daughter’s relationship with the youth because of his neo-Nazi views.

Yet hardly any of these fatal attacks by radicalised white men dominated the news headlines in the US in the same way that shootings or bombings by radicalised Muslims tend to. Aside from the killing of Heyer in Charlottesville, how many of these incidents had you even heard of? Researchers at Georgia State University found that terrorist attacks “by Muslim perpetrators received, on average, 449 per cent more coverage than other attacks”. Muslims were responsible for 12.4 per cent of the terror attacks in the US between 2011 and 2015 yet received 41.4 per cent of the news coverage. Is it any wonder that when most Americans think of terrorists they picture brown, not white, skins?

“Terrorism is one of the only areas where white people do most of the work and get none of the credit,” joked the comedian Ken Cheng in a viral tweet. But this is no joking matter for the Trump administration. Upon coming to office last year, White House officials briefed Reuters that they wanted to “revamp and rename a US government programme designed to counter all violent ideologies so that it focuses solely on Islamist extremism… and would no longer target groups such as white supremacists.”

By June, the administration had announced it would be revoking federal funding for Life After Hate, a non-profit dedicated to deradicalising right-wing extremists, and a project by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill that was supposed to counter both violent Islamists and white supremacists.

Yet in May last year, an intelligence bulletin prepared by the FBI and the department for homeland security was obtained by Foreign Policy magazine, which warned that “white supremacists had already carried out more attacks than any other domestic extremist group over the past 16 years”. It concluded that white supremacists “likely will continue to pose a threat of lethal violence over the next year”.

And so they have. Just as George W Bush ignored intelligence about a growing threat from al-Qaeda in his first year in office, Trump spent 2017 ignoring warnings about the “persistent threat of lethal violence” from white supremacists.

“To solve a problem you have to be able to state what the problem is or at least, say the name,” declared Trump in his October 2016 debate with Clinton. Maybe, just for once, the president should take his own advice.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 22 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Easter special