An organised society

There is nothing surprising or unpredictable about tonight’s terrorist attack in Munich — or any other recent terrorist attack in Europe. The most likely scenario is that these attacks will continue and will escalate across the continent (a) because we are not doing enough to stop or deter them and (b) because as far as the extremists are concerned the attacks are working. Europe is under attack by both extremes — far-right ethno-nationalism and religious fanaticism.

While the terrorists are solely responsible for the pain and suffering caused by their actions, I can’t help but think that the seeds of discord and potential societal breakdown were sown by those — at both ends of the political spectrum — who for decades have used populist anti-establishment rhetoric, turning people against their governments — not just against individual politicians who may or may not be corrupt, but against the institutions, processes and offices of government; against representative democracy; against the concept that society should have a hierarchy based on merit. Those who have based their entire academic and political careers on emphasizing the real but specific failings of a system that is infinitely more effective and safe than the utopian chaos they like to advocate for — while reaping the benefits of that very system. Those who have taken every single entitlement (from high quality healthcare and free education to major human right victories) as somehow God-given rather than acknowledging the constructive role of compromise and of the political process. What we are seeing today is a continent that very soon could become so vulnerable and fragile as to be set ablaze by a single lit match — a provocation like the Reichstag fire or the recent “coup” in Turkey. More worrying than the attacks themselves is the confused and polarised mental state of the citizens of Europe and the fragmented, emasculated capacities of our devalued executive governments at national and EU level.

So, what is the solution? We can choose to ignore these attacks and let people die — to become yet one more region in which bombs going of on a daily basis is not news. Or we can choose to turn against each other and plunge the continent into strife and suffering. Or we can reconsider our responsibility as citizens. We are happy to send our kids to school because we recognise the mandatory nature of primary and secondary education. We pay taxes because we want to receive healthcare and services and national defence that no citizen alone can source on their own. We stop at red lights because that’s how we don’t get killed. We form queues so that we get served more efficiently. We bury or cremate our dead so that they don’t rot out in the street. We maintain our infrastructure so that we can continue to survive. That’s why we have laws and norms and regulations — that’s why we are an organised society.

Well, maybe we should have a few new norms and rules and laws that emphasise engagement and tolerance and acceptance of those basic fundamental democratic processes, values and principles that got us through 70 years of post-war stability and coexistence. Maybe we should try to cultivate respect for democratically elected, intellectually rigorous authority rather than fetishize resistance, radical action, anarchy and violence. Maybe we should try to deal with the challenge of stereotyping, injustice and oppression without fetishizing victimhood and revenge. Maybe we should treat education and reason as our aspiration, rather than fetishizing celebrity for celebrity’s sake. If a handful of mentally deranged attention-seeking lone wolves can cause this much pain and suffering, then surely an entire continent of committed citizens can sort this out. If we embrace these principles and continue to push for them then politicians will listen.

Dr Roman Gerodimos is Principal Lecturer in Global Current Affairs at Bournemouth University in the UK, a faculty member at the Salzburg Academy on Media & Global Change and the founder/convenor of the Greek Politics Specialist Group (GPSG). Roman is the winner of the Arthur McDougall prize for his research on online youth civic engagement. He is the co-editor of The Media, Political Participation and Empowerment (Routledge) and The Politics of Extreme Austerity: Greece in the Eurozone Crisis (Palgrave Macmillan).