Fear and Prejudice at the borders of Europe

The most difficult challenge we are facing right now is finding a balance between the legitimate concerns for our security and the necessity to save Europe from our own fears

Three days ago I flew from Paris to Milan and as soon as I reached Malpensa and approached to the exit I was stopped – just like all the other passengers on my plane and presumably on any other – by security forces in civilian clothes to have my passport checked.
Nothing striking in this, considering the fear and the suspicion that the attacks in Paris – now as close to home as they had no longer been since 2005 – have left behind them throughout Europe. Though, if I am now feeling the need to write on it is because something upsetting actually occurred: of my passport only the picture was checked (no stamps of previous travels nor any other detail) and a few seconds were enough to convince I was nothing more than a tourist coming back home. For the guy next to me, though, the process was longer as his brown skin and a previous travel to Egypt led to a series of insisting questions to which there seemed to be no easy way out. Nor was it easier for the African man heading towards the exit in the luggage hall and suddenly stopped for a last check on who he was and what he was in Italy for. A last check from which my pale, native European skin saved me.

The attacks in Paris on 13th of November shocked us all and will be part of our collective memory forever, as only devastating events can be – just like 9/11 for the Americans and November 2008 for Indians.
If terrorist attacks against civilians always elicit our outrage and condemnation, regardless of where they take place and who they hit, it is undeniable (and understandable) that the closer to home terrorism gets and the stronger our reactions are. No European will ever think there is a difference between terrorism hitting Turkey, Lebanon, France or Mali, because as humans we reckon and defend the value of life as such, but as European citizens who spend their free time going to stadiums, concert halls, and restaurants, we can too easily identify ourselves with the victims of Paris not to feel the need to react to that specific tragedy in some way.
All comprehensible. We feel threatened in our home, there where we used to feel safe the most, and we want and expect our States to do something that could make us feel safe again, or at least make us pretend we are.

The problem is when fear leads to irrationality, prejudice and racism.

Increased passport controls at European airports are clearly nothing outrageous per se. If they can make citizens feel safer and augment their trust in the State, its institutions, and its legitimacy, then they can’t but be welcomed in moments like this.
When those controls, though, involve only certain categories of people on the basis of unjustified assumptions, it means we have lost our fight against fear, by letting it free to cancel all the progress that we had managed to make thus far. When we accept that people be subject to different treatments just because of their skin, their nationality, or their (often merely presumed) religion, it means we are letting fear – and the terrorism that caused it – put into questions all the values and principles that our societies are based on.
Of all the achievements of the European Union as political entity and of us Europeans as people, few are as relevant as the belief and assertion that our identity – as expressed by our internal relations and by the relations we entertain with all other countries and individuals – is based on the protection of those fundamental human rights and freedoms that through the ECHR, through Art.2 EUT, through the Nice Charter, and the constitutional principles shared by all European States have entered our weltanschauung.
The recognition of the principle of equality of individuals irrespective of ethnicity, religion, nationality, skin, and sex has always been a pillar in the system of values that lies at the core of the EU’s self-perception and approach to the world – a principle to be defended there where it is and to be brought there where is missing.
Though, it seems as if we are now forgetting what being that community of values that Solana always celebrated means, and it seems as if we are now forgetting that to increase our security legitimately we cannot betray our identity. If the trade-off between security and freedom has always come to challenge States victim of terrorist attacks, we must not forget it’s the security and freedom of all.

Furthermore, it should be noticed that fear and prejudice are not only putting at risk the Europe we have built, but are also distorting our capacity of responding effectively to a major security threat.
By responding to terrorism through discrimination, in fact, we only risk to play the terrorists’ game, as we might tend to alienate all those people who are part of our societies but whom we feel threatened by just because they look different from us. By responding to terrorism adopting a different approach to different people, we don’t reduce threats – as real threats will always find a way around our increased controls – but just create further barriers within societies in which multicultural coexistence is already a delicate issue. How can in fact a foreign national/immigrant/son of immigrants living in our countries feel about a society that treats him differently for no just reason? How strong can be his sense of belonging and respect?
Instead of creating new sources of inter-societal divisions, and making feel those foreigners who have chosen our countries to live, work and study as a different and distrusted category of citizens, we should use the fear created by terrorism to increase cohesion. We should start from the common fear that terrorism spreads to build a common, unitary response, to make feel part of the same society all those who – whatever their national origins and religion – see in terrorism an enemy, a threat to our way of life that has to be prevented, resisted and fought.
If new controls and security measures are felt as necessary, then they have to involve all the population in the same way and to the same extent, to avoid giving terrorism the victory of disrupting our societies through a deepening of divisions that we create ourselves out of fear and irrationality.

In front of something as heinous and inhuman as terrorist attacks are, finding the proper way to respond is extremely difficult and perhaps the ideal response doesn’t even exist, as too many and too diverse factors come at play, shaking our world and questioning our beliefs. Though, even in a moment of major fear and suffering, something can be said for sure: no effective response to terrorism can be the one that put at risk the multiculturalism to which we have been opening our societies, the freedoms on which we have founded our political Union, and the values on which we have built our identity.


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Hi! My name is Marta Furlan. I am from Italy and was born in Milan in 1993. I speak five languages, my main areas of interest are the Middle East and Islamist terrorism and my great passion is traveling. I'm majoring in Foreign Languages for International Relations at the Catholic University. Last year I attended a summer course at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem on the role of Israel in the Middle East, and have recently had been working in South Africa at the Chamber of Commerce in Johannesburg. I am currently completing my thesis on the development of jihadist terrorism by Al Qaeda in ISIS. Follow my blog if you have a strong interest in International Relations, especially Middle East.

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