It happened again. After a reprieve from the nearly weekly incidences of Islamist terror attacks in the West this year, there’s been another. Just six days before Christmas, a man drove a semi-truck into a crowded Christmas market in Berlin’s historic downtown. Twelve people died and dozens are injured. While Germany was victim to three smaller-scale terrorist attacks over the summer, this is the first large-scale attack that’s been successfully executed.
ISIS claimed responsibility, referring to the attacker(s) as a “soldier of the Islamic State,” as they often do when an ISIS sympathizer carries out an attack in the West. But this time something is different. Not only did the attacker not die in the aftermath, he’s nowhere to be found.
Germany officials initially arrested and held a Pakistani man who sought asylum in Germany earlier this year. But Tuesday evening he was released and authorities announced that the real culprit was still at large. They suggested there may be more than one man involved, as is often the case.
This leaves open the possibility that the unknown attacker will strike again, buoyed by his “success” in once again causing misery and fear in Europe. But this unique situation also allows for the attacker to speak out about his motivations, something previous perpetrators of Islamist terrorism have been unable to do. In fact, because attackers are often killed during the assault, Western media spends days, sometimes weeks, agonizing over possible motives other than religion.
Maybe with the attacker still alive, he can help convince the West that his was an act motivated by religious and political zealotry—not insanity, poverty, or a poor education.
We Hate the West and We Don’t Need Guns to Hit It
The Berlin attack echoed the devastating Nice terrorist attack back in July. Recall that a Tunisian man drove a truck onto the famous Nice promenade on Bastille Day during a fireworks display, killing 86 and injuring hundreds more. This week’s attack teaches us once again, and ever so sadly, that guns, bombs, or even extensive planning aren’t necessary for one man to wreak havoc on a city, country, and countless families. Where there’s a will, there’s a way. As the last two years have also shown us, there is certainly a resolve among certain Muslim sects to teach the West a violent lesson.
The symbolic selection of a Christmas market is particularly tragic, although not surprising. Christmas markets have topped the list of known potential targets in Germany since the recent ISIS-sponsored and -inspired attacks began hitting Europe early in 2015 with the Charlie Hebdo attack. In fact, it was only a few weeks ago that 12-year-old German-Iraqi tried and failed to detonate a nail bomb at a Christmas market elsewhere in Germany.
These Christmas markets are an attractive target not only because they tend to be bustling with innocent bystanders, but because Christmas is the West’s most cherished holiday and a religious occasion for its large Christian community. The Berlin attack, in other words, was meant to strike at the heart of Western culture.
The attack comes at a particularly bad time for German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is up for reelection next year and has faced intense criticism over her “open arms” migrant policy during the refugee crisis that began last year. Merkel’s party, the Christian Democratic Union, is worried that the populist wave that has struck countries around the world, including the United States, is coming for Germany next.
The right-wing Alternative for Germany party, which runs on an anti-migrant platform, has already done well in regional elections this year, including in Merkel’s home district. The party’s leader, Frauke Petry, used this latest attack to illustrate the dangers of unregulated immigration, warning that Germany is “no longer safe.” She also said saying so ought to be the job of the chancellor.
Looking Away Can Be Deadly
One surprising thing about the first 24 hours after the Berlin attack was the relatively light media coverage, especially compared to when attacks like this were first starting to occur last year. Is this a new reality that Europe’s just willing to accept? Every few weeks or months a man or woman will kill randomly, sometimes on a small scale, sometimes on a large one, and we’ll just shake our heads and mumble “too bad?”
Are we done putting flag filters over our Facebook profile pictures as a symbol of solidarity, ineffectual as it might be? Or is it only in the United States that these attacks have lost their “excitement?” Are we just too distracted by Donald Trump’s latest cabinet appointment to bother ourselves with another act of terrorism across the pond?
But Europe doesn’t have the luxury of ignoring this. The problem can’t be kicked down the road. It’s lying at their feet and it isn’t going anywhere. Will they accept it as the new normal, or fight to change course?
Berlin is a reminder that the effects of the Islamic State and the refugee crisis stemming from the Syrian civil war will be felt in Europe for years to come. There are surely many more terrorist cells than we know about that infiltrated Europe disguising themselves as refugees. And then there’s the problem of European ISIS fighters who, once they are driven from Syria and Iraq, will come back home and start families and join mosques.
Both types will spread their fundamentalist version of Islam and all its attendant sanctioning of violence. Hopefully we won’t be too cynical or bored by then to care.