The latest series of terror attacks in Europe has justifiably received a great deal of media attention and stirred up heated debates about immigration across the continent, with reporters extensively covering politician’s responses and official press conferences. Few, however, reported on the reports themselves and responded to the responses.
Overall, “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil” seems to be the default theme of the official’s talking points when it comes to concerns over immigration. Terror attacks are isolated incidents, radicals blowing themselves up in concerts, or attacking train passengers with an axe are just mental cases and anybody who dares doubt this version of events is a racist. Unfortunately, this systematic persistence to deny facts, dismiss concerns or just “plead the 5th”, is present throughout the spectrum of politically uncomfortable crimes. Terrorist incidents are in fact the ones we know the most about. It’s the less headline-able, yet much more common, crimes that seem to be the trickiest to accurately document.
The boy who systematically refused to cry “wolf”
Even in politics, there is such a thing as going too far, and this is what we’ve witnessed over the last couple of years in Europe’s handling of the refugee crisis. Trading human beings for geopolitical leverage, treating refugees as bargaining chips, using drowned children to score political points and closing deals with both member and neighbouring states that equate lives with euros (or visa-free travel), did not turn out to be a popular strategy – who could have seen that one coming. There’s really only one thing that could make it worse, and that’s adopting radical denial as the default response to the system’s multiple failures.
This exactly the way which European leaders have chosen to deal with almost every single migrant-related crime in recent months. Myopic, irresponsible and frankly desperate denial of facts and of actual events. Heads of state and police authorities have taken the intellectual anathema that is the construct of political correctness and turned it into something infinitely more dangerous. Efforts to mute the proper, accurate and thorough reporting of real crimes and attacks are not only unethical, but quite naive too: In 2016, no one in their right mind would even try to bully the internet into submission.
Germany has been especially passionate in the war on information. Starting in 2015, an increasing number of worrying incidents has come to light: hindered journalistic investigations, distorted police reports, and fudged official crime figures. It became obvious that institutional meddling had escalated way beyond the tin-foil-hat level of credibility, when big, mainstream players like die Welt reported that suppression of migrant criminality is a nation-wide phenomenon, and quoted the head of the German police union as saying “Every police officer knows he has to meet a particular political expectation. It is better to keep quiet because you cannot go wrong”. The Bild also published articles in a similar vein, about crimes of immigrant offenders deliberately not being reported; evidence that official crime statistics have been tinkered with.
Since the beginning of this year, police and media cover ups have decisively entered the mainstream dialogue. Germany again made headlines, after the shocking Cologne attacks, as people took to the streets to protest against their government’s inaction. And then it all got much worse, when leaked federal police documents, published by the Süddeutsche Zeitung, revealed that more than 1200 women in 12 different states filed complaints of attacks on New Year’s Eve, around half of them being related to sexual assault, a figure much higher than initially reported. Over 600 of these offences, including rape, took place in Cologne that night, while later investigations also revealed that government officials requested that Police remove the word “rape” from their initial report, or not publish it at all. Also, according to the victim’s descriptions, the leaked police report stated that the majority of suspects were of North African origin, and around half of them were recent arrivals in Germany. To date, only two offenders have been convicted: This July, to the victims’ and the public’s great dismay, the District Court of Cologne gave a 20-year-old Iraqi and a 26-year-old Algerian a one-year suspended sentence each and then released them.
Sweden also had a credibility crisis of its own to deal with this year, when it emerged that authorities mishandled and misrepresented similar sexual attacks during summer festivals in Stockholm. And that’s only the tip of the iceberg, as the number of reported crimes with no arrests or convictions to follow has been on the rise for two years. And as for inter-migrant crime in both countries, there’s little hope of ever unveiling any accurate figures. Police unions, women’s rights groups and charities have repeatedly accused the authorities of downplaying reports of sexual assault, rape, forced prostitution, and even child abuse in refugee shelters.
The media also adopted, or succumbed to, this voluntary blindness. The german public television station ZDF eventually apologised for not covering the Cologne attacks for four days after the story broke, while the German Press Council, the regulatory body defining the professional ethics of the country’s journalists, decided that german media should continue to withhold information regarding the ethnic origin or religion of offenders in their coverage of the crimes. The german government also took steps early this year to make sure that not only information, but personal opinions as well, remain in line and do not contradict the state’s rosy version of reality. First, after Hamburg’s state prosecutors opened an investigation on Facebook with the accusation that it’s not doing enough to stop the spread of anti-Muslim speech, the company was successfully bullied into launching the “Initiative for Civil Courage Online” mainly targeting the German market. Facebook pledged 1 million euros to fund hate-fighting NGOs and promised to better police racist content; whatever that might be deemed to be, according to the state-endorsed criteria applied. This May, the European Commission unveiled an online “Code of Conduct” for the rest of Europe too: Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Microsoft all co-signed the agreement. Several conservative journalists and authors have already complained about their content being unduly censored; posts of personal opinions have been taken down, but also research articles that listed reports and official data from local police stations.
Who’s who and who isn’t
Learning to live side by side with different cultural and religious values can be a challenge by itself, but when diversity is introduced in any community both gradually and voluntarily, the work it takes both groups to adapt and to find common grounds to build on, in most cases, really pays off. It enriches both parties, not only culturally, but economically as well. Gaps in the market are filled, new business opportunities arise, and innovative ideas circulate, boosting overall economic output. On the other hand, when immigration comes abruptly, as a forced directive from the top, and in unsustainable numbers, as we saw in Europe, a very different set of consequences is bound to unfold. Unpreparedness, organisational mismanagement and lack of resources, quickly leads to suspicion, social division and hostility. Then, by even appearing to grant one side an unfair advantage, especially a legal one, governments can expect to accelerate this deterioration of social cohesion dramatically.
Despite institutional attempts to blur the lines, or even deny their existence altogether, there are three distinct categories of people in the middle of the immigration debate. Sorting them by their numbers, the smallest category is that of the islamic terrorists, a few of whom were indeed homegrown and had absolutely nothing to do with the refugee influx (although some did use fake passports to pose as refugees and ease their passage through border control). Then we have the significantly larger group of criminal offenders of the less bombastic, yet socially deleterious variety, with crimes ranging from sexual assault and violent muggings, to vandalism and petty theft. And finally, there is a vast majority of innocent people, whose entire communities and way of life was upended by war and violence, forcing them to take incredible risks to reach the european shores, as they literally ran for their lives. There is no question that misleading and criminally irresponsible promises, made by EU politicians and human traffickers alike, exacerbated the immigration crisis, but now that we’re in this situation, we have to find a way out; and it has to be a peaceful one. There’s also no question that within this majority lies a subset that espouses ideas that fundamentally conflict with western values. However, as is the case (or should be, anyway) for any european citizen too, one can believe and think and say and condemn whatever they like, as long as there is no aggression, and no threat to life or property.
By underreporting migrant crimes, or by redacting names and background details of the offenders, or perhaps even worse, by handing out lenient sentences, authorities and media naively hope that the public can be convinced that there’s indeed “nothing to see here” and just move on. However, the opposite is the case: as the editor of the “Sächsische Zeitung”, Uwe Vetterick pointed out, the results of a representative survey indicated that readers were more likely to assume that an offender was an asylum seeker if there was no mention of their nationality in the coverage, even if he actually wasn’t. Realistically, there’s only so many crimes that can be swept under the rug, and then the public perception shifts from “no crime was committed” to “a crime was committed, but the offender got away with it”. It is naive to think that this sort of “benign censorship” helps calm social tensions, or at least suffices to keep them contained.
It doesn’t. It really doesn’t. It only stirs suspicions, fuels mistrust of the authorities and leads the public to seek out information elsewhere. More often than not, this quest for the “full story” leads the information-starved citizen right into the online lairs of hateful fear-mongers who promote inaccurate, hyperbolic, un-fact-checked, paranoid theories and racist, misanthropic rhetoric. “If they lied about Cologne, maybe they lied about the Munich shooter too, and who knows what else”, the thinking goes – “why not do some digging of my own, see what other sources have to say”. By keeping quiet, for fear of being called a racist, officials and journalists are diverting traffic and clicks to the actual, proper racists.
European citizens, already living in fear of the next terrorist attack which they know their governments will most likely fail to prevent, now also begin to see other threats, of crimes statistically much more prevalent. There’s only one way to assuage those fears. The criminal must be identified, promptly arrested, fairly tried and justly punished, thereby sending a strong and clear message that the offence was committed by individual wrongdoers, who are now arrested and no longer pose a threat to society. Making their identities public, showing the specific face and name of the threat, sets the criminals apart from the rest of their community, focuses the blame only where blame is due and gives the public a sense of closure, of justice served, of “case closed”.
If the state refuses to justly punish the guilty, no matter who they are or where they hail from, it automatically breaks its promise about everyone being equal under the law, and a new narrative is formed: The perceived association between migrant or minority background and criminality followed by favourable treatment is the tipping point, upon which the sense of injustice boils over and the anger becomes indiscriminate. Frustration and fear turn into hostility, aimed at the guilty and innocent alike. And that’s when things get truly dangerous. Because the anger that was bred by the initial suppression of information, is then also confined by the suppression of free speech: If people can’t talk about their grievances in a civilised way, if they can’t openly debate, freely express their opinions and exchange their ideas, to turn their anger into constructive dialogue, that anger will build up and find another outlet. Mob justice is not famous for its due process; its targets will be criminals and innocents alike, newly arrived immigrants and second generation citizens, or ultimately anyone who even vaguely matches the description of an outsider. Where is the line? The government chose to blur it, when, as is its wont, shrank from differentiating between individuals and groups.
Early signs of this dangerous trend of fallacious inductive reasoning, and of fear spilling over from the specific to the general, can be found in reports revealing a spike in the number of attacks against refugee homes, and in the picture painted by a recent Pew poll, that found a sharp increase in Europeans’ unfavourable views of muslims, and heightened public concerns about the refugees’ presence in their countries increasing the risk of terror attacks, crime and unemployment.
Equally worrying is the in the growing support for political groups with primitive and collectivistic ideologies, misanthropic rhetoric and visions of an omnipotent state. Some sell the promise of a pure race and their fevered dreams of gulags, pogroms and public executions, like the stomach-turning Golden Dawn party in Greece, while others try to out-left the incumbent Left and blame crimes and rapes, not on migrants, not on Islam, not on culture, not on poverty, not even on trauma from war and violence: No, the problem is men, all men; it’s that pesky Y chromosome that needs eliminating and then all will be fine and dandy in the world.
So far, the leadership’s response to this troubling turn in the public’s sentiment offers no real solutions and no meaningful measures to assuage their fears. Instead, we see self-promotional political initiatives, that amount to no more than cheap publicity stunts: The burkini bans in France’s beaches and the call for a burqa ban in Germany’s public places. Whether one’s sensibilities are offended by those garments and whether they should be accepted in our western, secular culture is beside the point. Migrant and/or muslim women and girls in Europe have never played any statistically significant role in a single terror attack, sexual assault or other violent crime, and yet they are the only group to have actual, real restrictions force changes in their behaviour and practices.
The blame has already started to shift from the individual offenders to their entire groups and communities, and this sort of thinking, this generalisation of a perceived threat is a very slippery slope. It’s often used to justify totalitarian solutions to individual problems and that never ends well, for anybody. The choice the state is called to make is as simple as it should be morally unchallenging: Punish the few that are guilty or risk punishing all the rest; “the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free”, the doubly victimised, by their governments and by our own.