Fear in Berlin (or: They Do It With Mirrors)

Photo by amira_a | CC BY 2.0

Photo by amira_a | CC BY 2.0


During the minutes when the attack was being carried out in Berlin on Monday night, the 19th of December 2016, I was eating a lovely dinner in an Iraqi restaurant just a few kilometers away, in the popular Kreuzberg district. I was in the company of one of my daughters, a resident of the city, and her/my friend, a choreographer, painter and filmmaker who left Iraq years ago as a refugee from the war and chaos in his native city of Baghdad, and now lives and works in Amsterdam. I had asked him before my arrival if he knew of a good Arabic restaurant in Berlin and he had immediately answered in the affirmative, obviously pleased that I appreciate his home culture. I had been confident that there were good Arabic restaurants there. The city is very international and is home to a great many immigrants and foreigners from different parts of the world. That’s one of the things I love about it. Even hundreds of thousands of Jews have returned. There are plenty of Germans who do not like that international aspect of Berlin and other cities with such diverse populations, and many of them refer to this mixture of nationalities and traditions derisively as “multikulti”, from the word for multicultural. A great many of this latter ethnic German group are very susceptible at the moment to a campaign theme being employed in advance of the 2017 elections by — among others — members of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s CDU (Christian Democratic Union) as those conservatives try to win back the many voters who have been deserting them to vote for the upstart radical right-wing party Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) and helping it to take seats in the legislatures of every state which has held elections in the last two years. That campaign theme is based on a slogan which refers to the mandatory assimilation which these right-wingers increasingly demand should be forced upon immigrants and refugees: those newcomers should be required to adopt die deutsche Leitkultur (“the German dominant culture”).

But in that pleasant, unpretentious restaurant one sensed little tension that evening. Most of the guests appeared to be of Middle Eastern origin, although a few had German friends with them. There were a few women wearing Islamic head coverings, quite a few without, and beautiful Iraqi waitresses who were dressed casually in Western jeans and other flattering, fashionable attire.

I grew up in America where most immigrants wanted to be like the rest of us, or that was my impression. Even if they were proud of their cultural origins and enjoyed hanging with people from their own ethnic group or nationality (or their parents’), they seemed glad to adopt an American lifestyle. Here in Europe things were always a bit different, and a larger percentage of immigrants have chosen to retain a good bit of their native culture, or in some cases such as that of many adolescent Muslim girls, have been forced to do so by macho, devout Muslim fathers. Still, one does not see many Muslim women here wearing the burka, the long garment which also masks the face. Nonetheless, conservative German lawmakers have been foaming at the mouth to ban the burka in public for some months now since France did so following its own terrorist attacks. This is apparently intended as a strong symbolic act, since I – and I’m sure most others here as well – have never seen a woman wearing a burka in this country. At her party’s recent national political convention, Chancellor Merkel, who usually studiously avoids being publicly associated with such measures which are pretty openly xenophobic, thought she had best throw her racists a bone and publicly endorsed the burka ban proposal. The far-right voters are baying for her blood and, although she was re-elected as her party’s chairperson and nominated once again as their candidate for Chancellor in the upcoming election, many of her supporters are very worried about the extent to which the anti-immigrant voters are demonizing her for her relatively refugee-friendly policies in recent years.

There is an epidemic wave of fear spreading rapidly through Europe. And since the attack on the Christmas Market in Berlin, which we were surprised to read about when we reached my daughter’s apartment after our delightful Iraqi meal, the fear machine is in high gear.

Since the attack, German mainstream media have scarcely given 10 minutes per hour to any other subject.

As the EU continues to fall apart slowly, with mounting disputes between the original member countries and the newer Eastern European members over refugees and fascist-lite policies in Poland and Hungary, and continued crises over neoliberal austerity policies which are destroying the economies of southern European members such as Italy, Spain and Greece, the terrorist attacks have now come to raise the fear and confusion to a new level.

To the East, the NATO build-up of troops and missiles along Russia’s border continues, along with the propaganda campaign designed to paint this development as a purely defensive measure against “Russian aggression”. The hysterical claims by Poland and other Eastern European nations to the effect that they are threatened with a Russian invasion, based on their historical grievances and flying in the face of any modern logic, are treated seriously and allowed to escalate the New Cold War, while nary a word is ever spoken about the role of NATO Big Brother the United States and its powerful neoconservatives in that same escalation. Indeed, any description of the events involving Asst. US Secretary of State Victoria Nuland (aka/”Cheney’s Revenge”) and her ideological soulmates in the run-up to the Ukraine coup is treated here as “Fake News”.

Because it has only been a few decades since the parents and grandparents of today’s Germans rebuilt their shattered country from the ruins of World War II – and the same applies to much of Western Europe – comfort and security are a very, very big deal here. Elderly citizens in particular, of whom there are still many who remember that chaos, are terrified by current threats real and imagined. Although EU citizens throw the word “democratic” around a lot to describe the system here, and although it does in fact generally bear a stronger resemblance to that fabled beast “democracy” than America has for quite a long time now, many Europeans appear ready lately to jettison a large chunk of their civil liberties at the drop of a hat if it will only bring back the relatively carefree days of a few years ago, when they felt safe on the streets and the police appeared to have matters well under control.

Germans, in particular, are reeling from a couple of years of astounding revelations. The country owes much of its continued economic stability to its automobile industry and the associated worldwide exports, one of the reasons it was virtually the only country on earth whose economy barely shrank at all during the world economic crisis which began in 2007 – which always made an ironic counterpoint to the fact that Germany is also seen as a global environmental leader, thanks to its great strides in moving toward complete renewable energy power sourcing, after changing course and beginning to phase out nuclear power completely following Fukushima. But BEHOLD: now it turns out that Volkswagen, Europe’s largest auto producer and one of the cornerstones of “Made in Germany” pride, has been deliberately deceiving the public around the world for years and equipping its diesel models with software which can fool emissions inspectors and then allow the cars to pollute happily until the next inspection. This huge, successful, wealthy company, with its vast network of government support and subsidy, resorted to sleazy and underhanded tricks to make even more money and was not concerned in the least about making a mockery of German environmental leadership in the process. All of this while Germany was making pious moral sermons to environmental sinner nations at the UN conferences in Paris and elsewhere. Whom can you trust these days?

Not the bureaucrats at EU headquarters in Brussels. They and the elected members of the European Parliament are under no illusions whatever that things are going well: poll after poll shows skepticism about the institution growing everywhere in its territories, and right-wing parties which want to turn their backs on what is widely perceived as an elite structure for elite clients are threatening to take power even in France and the Netherlands, two of the union’s key members. Many here believe that if the Front National wins the election in France next year, the dream of a unified Europe is at an end. On top of the problems which were already growing, the success of the Brexit movement and the election of Trump have shocked even many of that minority of Europeans who still take Christian doctrine seriously into wondering if Nietzsche was perhaps right about the death of “God”. Trump’s stated interest in cooperating with Russia and reducing American support for NATO, coming immediately on the heels of Obama and Hillary’s success in convincing the EU that Putin is evil incarnate, strikes the majority here as tantamount to putting Europe on the auction block at the geostrategic equivalent of a slave market. The military forces of European countries, with the possible exception of France, have always been a bit of a joke in the postwar era. They exist. They have uniforms and guns. But with America paying the lion’s share of NATO’s expenses and in possession of bases all over Europe and much of the world, there was never much pressure to have them taken terribly seriously. No one appears quite sure at the moment how they can be quickly made even marginally independent.

More fear.

But it is not only here in Europe that the fear is spreading, and terrorism and Brexit and Trump are only a few of the many factors in play. It is all a far cry from the cockiness which spread across the realm of unfettered capital following the events of 1989 and the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union. For millions of people around the world who never had any security, who have always lived in war zones or scratched for their food in garbage dumps or survived year in and year out in refugee shelters, not much has changed, nor did it then. But none of this was supposed to happen to us, here in the comfort zone.

And for the most part, it hasn’t happened to us … yet. Life on the street and in the grocery stores and the office buildings goes on much as usual – on the surface. But there is an increasing tone of panic in newscasts and in the speeches of politicians. It is becoming rapidly more obvious that there are no guarantees any more, if there ever were. We are in uncharted territory. The economy is a house of cards which was on the very verge of complete failure in 2008 and may not be so lucky next time. Everyone who is thoroughly and accurately informed about the seriousness of the environmental crisis, which has already begun, knows that the reason the environmental situation isn’t making headlines every single day is that the 1% is not willing to allow even more panic to infect the public sphere. Some of them are foolish enough themselves to actually believe everything will somehow be okay without any radical changes, but I personally think the majority of our owners is perfectly aware of how quickly the catastrophe could come. They are simply unwilling to give up any power or privilege to save the planet, most of which – along with most of its inhabitants, animal, plant, and human – they have no use for anyway. Or perhaps they believe that some technological miracle will descend on cue from the metaphorical heavens of Silicon Valley, deus ex machina as in the plays of ancient Greece, and save us as we hang on the edge of the cliff. Unfortunately, like nearly everyone else on earth these days, those mighty geniuses may be too busy staring at their smartphones to bother with saving the rest of us. It takes something earth-shattering like, perhaps, a terrorist attack to get many of us to look up from that screen these days, if we’re close enough, otherwise we watch the attack there too along with all the reports and commentary that follow. As I walk for miles through the forest here in southwestern Germany I occasionally see another hiker staring at her smartphone while walking obliviously through some of the most beautiful woods, river valleys and mountains I know. That cyber-world through the looking glass has got us firmly in its grip now, and all of our fear is being channeled through it. It is a digital house of mirrors. But it imparts illusions of power and participation too, as it enables those of us who care to do so to create little news agencies and think tanks of our own, profane and thoughtless as they often are. It may seem inconsequential, but governments are panicking about that, too, and are responding increasingly with plans to control and censor the internet. They realize that the House of Cyber-Mirrors has called their authority into serious question. The technological revolution which rescued a failing world economy in the 1990s has become the basis of that economy: the be-all and end-all, both the problem and the purported answer, the genie which runs all of our infrastructure and simultaneously undermines the power of the state, the parallel universe in which many of us spend nearly all of our time as our bodies somehow continue to move around on the physical plane. We don’t yet have implants in our necks that pick up the internet and relieve us of that cumbersome thing in our hand or on our desk, but it’s coming, if we last that long. Even the visionary futurist Philip K. Dick never imagined horror scenarios such as those looming on the horizon of what is now possible. But many of his novels take place in a future in which at least some of humanity has moved out to colonize other planets and thus relieve the ruined Earth of the need to support all of us: whereas here in realtime it appears we may not make it to that point in history in time to have that luxury.

Religion is a place to flee from all of the fear and confusion for some; it is a justification for murder for others; and for untold millions or even billions, it is an excuse to decline any personal responsibility for what happens to the biosphere and to humanity, since it is thought to be all “in the hands of God” (or “the gods and goddesses”) anyway. All of that is small comfort to those of us who reject the fairy tale approach to cosmology and think that what humans do, or fail to do, will determine our fate. But the mere suggestion that these ancient belief systems — with their categorizations of humans into believers and non-believers, the saved and the condemned, the enlightened and the blind – are one of the major obstacles to the solution of dangerous modern crises facing our species, brings outraged responses even from many who don’t take religious doctrine seriously. The right to some comforting “faith” is considered sacrosanct, a basic right.

What is also considered sacrosanct and a basic right by the vast majority of humans is the right to reproduce and bring new humans into this troubled and dangerous world. No matter how bleak our future appears — no matter how intractable the threats that grow ever more menacing and frightening — the leap from recognizing those threats and that bleak future, to the realization that children born now may be brought into a hopeless world with unimaginably grim conditions for much of our race by the time they are adults, is a bridge too far for most of us. Things will work out somehow, we want to believe, if we think about such things at all. They always have (for some of us at least). OUR lives will be enriched and improved if we have children. In fact, many if not most of us refuse or are incapable, even at this late hour, to honestly admit how bad the outlook really is. After all, the grocery stores are stuffed with an array of luxurious foodstuffs more mind-numbingly diverse than ever. Money comes out of the machine when we stick the proper card in the proper slot. One can listen to any kind of music imaginable, watch millions of films, or live sex if that is to one’s taste, one can read or watch almost any “news” medium or listen to almost any radio station on the planet, view brilliant art or stunning photos at any time of night or day, all with a simple click on the portal into the other side of the looking glass, the doorway into the House of Mirrors. One wants to believe that such a world is good and will remain good, that our children will have happy lives. The idea that having children could be an act of self-deception, selfishness, and willful blindness is too cynical and cold-hearted to countenance …

… isn’t it?

Gregory Barrett is an American translator and musician living in Germany.