Terror Threat Will Make Europe More Like Post-9/11 U.S.

The Continental spirit won't be the same.

Party's over.

Photograph: LOIC VENANCE/AFP/Getty Images

The theme of latest issue of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo -- which lost 11 staffers to a terrorist attack last January -- is that the French way of life will endure the most recent wave of terror. Europeans' responses to the new normal of a constant terrorist threat won't, unfortunately, be uniformly blasé.

On Tuesday, a friendly soccer game between Germany and the Netherlands was canceled in Hanover after police received information that someone was planning to detonate a bomb in the stadium. There were people already in the arena, including legendary former Dutch player Ruud Gullit, and they were told to go home:


Chancellor Angela Merkel and some cabinet ministers who were also supposed to attend the game -- to show that, despite the Paris attacks, they were not afraid -- were on their way to the stadium when the police got the tip-off, so they were diverted to a safe place. No bomb has been found so far; a package police did find on a train going to the stadium turned out to be a dummy.

This was just the latest disruption in Europe's life as usual. Belgium had canceled its own friendly game against Spain, scheduled for Tuesday. In Paris, of course, concerts, movie screenings and sports events were canceled immediately after Friday's attacks, but further cancellations followed this week, both in sympathy with the victims' families and because of safety concerns. Police raids leading to gunfights have shaken immigrant-heavy areas in Belgium and France -- Sint-Jans-Molenbeek in Brussels last weekend, Saint-Denis just north of Paris on Wednesday. Two Paris-bound flights from Los Angeles were diverted and searched on Tuesday after telephoned threats. In the German town of Gelsenkirchen, eight young men stormed a school yard with fake guns on Monday, saying they were from Islamic State, the terror group that claimed responsibility for the Paris attacks. Reports of suspicious objects on public transport became more frequent everywhere, and there's a heavier police presence on the streets of every major European city.

Much of this, of course, is only temporary -- an immediate response to the horror in Paris reflecting a heightened sensitivity to the threat, from police and politicians who don't want a disaster to happen on their watch, a media-inspired rise in insecurity among ordinary citizens, and a greater risk of copycat behavior from wannabe terrorists. Life should go back to normal very soon. "Show must go on," goes the caption to a cartoon in Wednesday's Charlie Hebdo, showing a line of cancan dancers grinning toothily as they lift not legs, but stumps skyward. Paris is the only city whose motto says "Fluctuat nec mergitur" -- "tossed but not sunk"  -- but not the only one to live by the saying.

"Normal," however, won't be quite the same as before. As German Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere said after the cancellation of the Hanover match:

We agree that we are not willing to change our way of life fundamentally. We want to go to Christmas markets, visit folk festivals. This should remain so. In principle, we will continue to celebrate events like this. And yet there's always a trade-off to be made, which has to do with protecting people in each individual case.

There's no avoiding it: European cities are under a constant threat while Islamic State remains strong, and Germans, Belgians and Italians are right to be a little jumpy even though, unlike France, their armies are not involved in the Syrian war.

Living with this is a burden that can be relatively heavy or relatively light depending on people's actual experience with terror. In 2006, a group of Israeli psychologists studied two Jerusalem suburbs, one constantly subject to terror such as sniper shootings and car stonings and another that was not directly exposed to such incidents. More people in the former showed post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms than in the latter; still, the incidence of such symptoms was rather high in both:

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Paris is now a directly exposed community after suffering two major attacks this year. Its residents, despite their famous resilience and hedonism, will inevitably suffer some of the symptoms typical of Israelis who have been living with the threat of terror all their lives. Other Europeans will be susceptible by association. 

This doesn't mean they will change their daily routines by much. Studies conducted in London two years after the 9/11 attacks on the U.S. and soon after the start of the Iraq war showed that Londoners saw a high probability of terror attacks in their city -- as high as 66 percent in one study -- but few of them avoided large gatherings or public transport. Yet there will be changes in beliefs and private behavior.

Terror management theory postulates that, faced with reminders of their mortality, people become more immersed in family life and strengthen their romantic relationships. At the same time, they become less tolerant of others' points of view and more prone to simple answers. "Reminders of mortality draw people toward charismatic leaders and ideologies that sell a simple vision of the greatness of the ingroup and the need to rid the world of evildoers," wrote the theory's authors, Jeff Greenberg and Jamie Ardt.

 If the terrorist threat persists in Europe, people will probably react like post-9/11 Americans, giving up a little of their customary openness and their pursuit of pleasure in the trade-off that de Maiziere talked about. Political parties offering simplistic solutions, including immigration curbs, are likely to gain supporters. Stronger families, too, are a likely result.

"They have weapons? To hell with them, we've got champagne," blared Charlie Hebdo's cover, showing a man spattered with bullet holes guzzling from a bottle. Yet it's probably wishful thinking. No amount of champagne can completely wash away the effects of such a major shock. Charlie Hebdo hasn't changed much since the January attack, but European society won't escape similarly unscathed.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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