At Large

Europe Talks Terrorism

It's passé even to mention it, yes, though it sure beats having to take action and getting all serious.

By 3.15.04

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If ever there was a time for European leaders to trade talk for action, last week was it. So it tells you something about the solemnity with which the war on terrorism is perceived in some quarters that Germany's first reaction to what may yet prove the deadliest terror attack in European history was to renounce action, and then call for talk.

"I believe we need a conference of EU interior ministers as quickly as possible," announced the German interior minister, Otto Schily. Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder seconded Schily, pledging not to beef up security, and vowing to reject new anti-terror laws. Instead, he offered the European version of that silly Democratic slogan: anti-terrorism is largely a police action. He then promised "hard punishment" for terrorists. That way, presumably, once those terrorists have finished butchering yet another swath of humanity, they'll be really, really sorry.

Schroeder's reluctance to take a tougher line against terrorism is understandable, though. Sure, Spain may be under siege by terrorists, all the more terrifying for their anonymity. But the German public is locked in more urgent combat. There is, for instance, the divisive matter of Nazi erotica.

This odd story involves an obscure German novelist, one Thor Kunkel. Kunkel, you see, has just penned a fictitious account about a series of real-life pornographic films shot by the Nazis in the woods of Hamburg. Recently, though, the book was dropped by its publisher after several unflattering reviews touched off a controversy about Kunkel's "right-wing" politics. For his part, the PR-savvy Kunkel amusingly vented his spleen in a letter to the reviewers at Der Spiegel magazine. "Like any half-sensible person I condemn the horrors of the Nazi era," he wrote. "It is not that I am trying to ignore the Holocaust, it's merely that it's totally passé as a theme."

Once you cut through Kunkel's hooey about artistic integrity and the publisher's slightly more accurate charges of latent Nazi sympathies, the real reason for the book's canning seems pretty simple: it sucked. All the same, the spirited debate it stirred up speaks to the utter disarray of German priorities: It's not that Germans are trying to ignore the horrors of international terrorism; it's just that, after two years of actively blasting the Bush team for smiting bin Laden's henchmen, terrorism is totally passé as a theme.

ELSEWHERE IN EUROPE, folks are no more focused. Take Switzerland. Altogether indifferent to the global threat of suicide terrorism, the country is moving to crack down on a far more serious phenomenon: "suicide tourism." Euthanasia clinics in places like Zurich are apparently popular destinations for visitors eager to depart from this world. Problem is, foreigners are expected to live at least half a year in Switzerland before they're considered eligible for assisted suicide. Unhappily, say Swiss officials, they tend not to stay longer than a day.

Not to worry, though. Swiss authorities have rolled out a series of regulations to allow those officials to check if would-be patients are "suffering from incurable illnesses and have expressed a repeated desire to die."

Repeated desire to die? Gee, maybe the Swiss authorities could send a few of those officials over to the West Bank. That place seems to be crawling with people who fit the bill. And if they could prevail on them to end it all in a nice Alpine clinic, as opposed to a crowded Jerusalem bus, then they'd have done their part in the war on terror.

As it stands, Europe can't seem to decide on a strategy against terrorism. You might expect, then, that the European Union would act as a model of leadership in these turbulent times. But then, you'd have to be joking. With its supply of dysfunctional relationships, its revolving cast of unpleasant characters, and its endless charade of tedious antics, Europe's governing body operates more as a sitcom than as a system.

Last week was a good example of what I'm talking about. Rather than doing something useful -- like hammering out a unified terrorism policy to allay European fears about a continental outbreak of terrorism -- the boys in Brussels were working to make the Internet safe. One European Commission spokesman beamed to reporters that the commission had "adopted a proposal which would help to make the Internet a safer place for children and for adults."

Hooray! I know if I were a European citizen, boarding my daily train terrified that apocalyptic crazies had jammed it full of explosives, I would be sure to take heart in the knowledge that the good functionaries at the EC were waging a determined campaign against…Spam.

Then you have the French, who, as per usual, are sui generis. Former French president Valéry Giscard d'Estaing shamelessly seized on Madrid's massacre to plug the Parisian pipe dream of a more muscular (read: more anti-American) European Union. Such a pity, he sighed, that Europe was too disjointed to grieve adequately for Spain's fallen. The slimy subtext was clear: if only Spain had parroted France's anti-American line and blocked the war as part of France's more perfect European Union, it would have been spared this tragedy. Gaulling behavior, is it not?

LEAVE IT TO THE EUROPEAN media to put things in perspective -- namely, theirs. Even making generous allowances for occupational bias, how the International Herald Tribune's rot about Iraq being a diversion from the war on terror -- this even as evidence suggests al Qaeda punished Spain for backing the removal of a terrorist-friendly regime -- rates as "news analysis," is entirely beyond me. Yet the paper seemed to think constructive its suggestion that the debate about terrorism in Europe should be driven by d'Estaing-inspired questions like, "[I]f an Islamist group is found responsible for the Madrid attacks, will the parts of Europe that opposed the war in Iraq look at Spain -- a supporter of the war -- and say, 'You reap what you sow?' "

Well, thank you for that. To adapt a line from John Maynard Keynes, when it comes to serious subjects like terrorism, the analysis of the European media amounts to the inculcation of the incomprehensible into the indifferent by the incompetent. I mean, really, are the earlier terrorist attacks in Turkey, an opponent of the war, evidence that you reap what you sow? Or, alternatively: What about the attacks on Iraqis working to build democracy from the ruins of dictatorial Iraq? Surely they reap what they sow. Does that mean they should stop sowing?

Don't expect the Tribune to give any serious thought to these questions. Like much of Europe, when it comes to grasping the nettle of terrorism, it's all talk. Sadly, Spain bought into it. "Maybe the Socialists will get our troops out of Iraq, and Al Qaeda will forget about Spain, so we will be less frightened," one disillusioned voter told the New York Times. Maybe. But if Spanish voters are banking on al Qaeda to provide security and calm their fears, they've already forgotten about Spain.

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About the Author

Jacob Laksin is a writer in New York City.