After Barcelona, a new message for the terrorists — and politicians — who exploit fear

They did as much damage as they could do with knives and rented vans. They killed at least 15 people. They injured dozens of others — many of them tourists who were visiting one of the liveliest and crowded streets in Barcelona, one of the most beautiful cities in Europe. But they failed to do anything more than that.

The Catalan police were effective and impressive, killing or arresting 11 of the terrorist cell members within hours. The terrorists, some only teenagers, were bungling and chaotic; their earlier attempts at making a bomb ended in catastrophe, after an explosion killed two of them. Their “suicide belts” proved to be fake. And in the wake of the van attack, Spaniards were not cowed. On the contrary, the mood in Barcelona was defiant, not fearful; angry, not hysterical. After a moment of silence last Friday, crowds in the city spontaneously began to chant, “I am not afraid … We are not afraid.”

This chant mirrors the sentiments in London a few months ago, after a similarly amateurish group tried to execute a similarly low-tech attack in Borough Market, another lively and crowded place. In London, as in Barcelona, well-prepared police reacted quickly, limiting the damage. In the wake of that attack, the London mayor, Sadiq Khan, sounded exactly the same notes as the Spanish crowd. Addressing himself to the “sick and vile extremists who did these hideous crimes,” he declared: “We. Will. Defeat you. You. Will. NOT Win.”

It’s hard to define and difficult to pin down. But the atmosphere in Europe, and particularly in Europe’s most heterogenous, most “cosmopolitan” cities, has changed in recent months. More people understand that the goal of jihadist terrorism is not just death but also chaos. More people realize that these attacks are often amateurish; if they had mass weapons, they wouldn’t be using cars. More people fear not terrorism, but the possible political aftermath of terrorism, the anger and hysteria that can be manipulated by populist politicians seeking support, or by tabloid media seeking sales. And more people understand that, by historical standards, the level of terrorism in Europe is still relatively low. In recent weeks, I’ve seen published, over and over again, charts showing that even when the notorious attacks in Paris and Brussels are included, the overall numbers are down from the 1970s, when a range of far-left movements and violent separatists, including ETA and the IRA, were active.

Increasingly, this mood is at odds with the reaction of more distant outsiders to the same events. President Trump’s reaction to London — he attacked Khan, via Twitter, for trying to play down people’s fears by declaring there was “no reason to be alarmed” by an increased police presence on the streets – was tasteless. But it had a trickle-down effect. An American friend told me that her daughter, on a study program in Oxford this summer, wasn’t allowed to go to London: The trip was curtailed because other Americans were afraid of terrorism. To anyone who actually lives in London, that kind of fear — pumped up by Trump and inflated by Fox News, seems not just cowardly but also ridiculous, as if Europeans would refuse to visit New York because they had seen white supremacists marching on TV.

Within Europe, the politicians farthest away from the actual events were also the ones most likely to exploit them. The Hungarian foreign minister, for example, drew an explicit link between illegal immigration and terrorism last week, even though at least some of the attackers were longtime, legal residents of Spain and others may have entered Europe on tourist visas. Those facts don’t matter, because the statement was intended not to reflect reality but to reinforce the Hungarian government’s image of itself as a bastion of national and Christian values.

But however Trump’s nasty Twitter posts or the Hungarian government’s sneering commentary are received at home, they are also helping reinforce the opposite view in London, Paris, Barcelona and Brussels. Here is what I’m hearing instead: We should resist fear, and we should resist politicians who traffic in fear. We should support our police and our borders, but that doesn’t mean we support those who scaremonger about either one.

And don’t let terrorism change our society or our politics, because that means the terrorists win. It’s a powerful narrative, and it might well spread.

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