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The fog of terror: These are far from the worst of times for Europe

It takes a lot to scare me.

I’ve survived at least four wars as a military journalist. I’ve seen up close and personal what terrorists can do.

I took this photo at right in April 2004 when the forerunners of the Islamic State attacked a U.S. Army unit I was covering in Baghdad, but only in succeeding in killing innocent children and bystanders.


So I know war. I know terrorism. And what’s going on today scares me … though not for the reasons you might think.

Today, Europe is in turmoil once again after yet another terror attack. Nationalists in Europe are seizing on the Berlin Christmas market attack as a chance to end the 71-year tradition of Christian-Democrat-style democracy, and to end the political career of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, one of the most successful leaders in modern history.

Over one bizarre attack about which no one seems to have any solid intel.

The irony is, as ominous as Islamic terror might seem today, it’s hardly unprecedented. I survived a much more dangerous time … a time Europe was just as fragmented. Maybe more so.

The truth is, as bad as the slaughter at the Christmas market was Monday night, Lone Wolf attacks such as Berlin and Nice are more than matched by the viciousness of extremists in the 1970s and 1980s.

It’s hard to remember that when the wound is fresh. But that’s how terrorism is meant to work. It’s meant to be random so anxiety about new attacks is always front of mind. Terrorism is meant to destabilize. Terrorism is meant to frighten us so we get a bunker mentality and retreat from the world.

So we start distrusting our neighbors. Looking for political scapegoats.

So we lose all perspective and start listening to simple solutions from strong men who say they’re the only ones who can save us, but who will only accelerate the cycle of violence.

We all know this. We’ve all lived this since the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. What we forget is, this game goes back way before 9-11.

Back in the 1970s and 1980s, there were major terror attacks every few months. The 1972 Munich Olympics. The 1973 Rome Airport attack that killed 31 people. The 1980 Bologna Railway Station bombing that killed 85 people and wounded 200. The simultaneous Vienna Airport and Rome Airport attacks of 1985 that killed more than 100 people in total. The 1988 Lockerbie bombing of PanAm 103 over Scotland that killed 270 people.

What might surprise you the most is, radical Islamic terrorists share the list of worst terror attacks in Europe – 2004 Madrid bombings, 2005 London bombings and Paris last year – with extremists from across the political spectrum.

The Bologna attack was carried out by Italy’s extreme right, which has recently come to power by peaceful means.

Most of the other terror attacks of that age were carried out by secular Palestinian or Arab groups such as the Palestine Liberation Organization and Black September. The Abu Nidal Group, which orchestrated the Rome and Vienna airport attacks, killed more than 1,600 people in 20 countries from Israel to Great Britain.

The Red Army Faction and Bader-Meinhof Gang were Marxists, as quaint as that sounds today. But they were deadly serious.

The Red Army Faction carried out hundreds of bombings, assassinations and kidnappings in Germany. In Italy, the Red Brigades kidnapped and killed dozens of people including a former prime minister, Aldo Moro.

baader-meinhofThis new generation of terrorists from the Islamic State are pretty much the same people, only different. They’re nihilists just like Black September and Bader-Meinhof. They believe in nothing but violence. Their message is violence. Violence is only an outlet for inchoate rage and frustration. IS terrorists ride around Iraq and Syria cutting off heads because they can. The Paris and Brussels plotters – supposedly observant Muslims – were out drinking and partying just before those attacks.

The man who drove his truck into the crowds in Nice killing 86 people last 14 July had a long history of mental illness and anger issues, but no history of religious extremism. Still, the French right has benefitted mightily from that attack.

All extremists share one core belief … the knowledge terrorism makes us feel like this is the worst of times. What worries me is, if we give in – if we turn our backs on our neighbors and on the unity that’s kept the peace in Europe for more than 71 years – the Bad Guys win.

Yes, continuing to go to Christmas market in defiance of the terrorists seems dangerous.

But if we give in and turn our backs on liberal democracy, everyone will suffer.

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Co-CEO of Dispatches Europe. A former military reporter, I'm a serial expat who has lived in France, Turkey, Germany and the Netherlands.

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