On European Hysteria in the Aftermath of the Paris Attacks

by Sajjad Safaei

In the days after Germanwings copilot Andreas Lubitz deliberately slammed his aircraft into the mountains and killed all 150 people on board, chilling details began to emerge about what really went on in the cockpit of the plane as it embarked on its perilous 10-minute nosedive.

In a last-ditch attempt to avert tragedy, Captain Patrick Sondheimer, who had been locked out of the cockpit by Lubitz, tried desperately to open the door with an ax—but to no avail. The door is designed to withstand a grenade blast in case the plane is hijacked. This design was one of the many responses to the hijackings on September11, 2001. The operating logic of this new policy treats anyone outside the cockpit—essentially the whole plane except the pilots—as potential risks, while granting the people inside the cockpit a disproportionate power over the life of the rest. This logic also refuses to see passengers as likely partners in ensuring the plane’s safety in the event of a hijacking. Had it not been for the security measures adopted in the post-9/11 frenzy over security, Sondheimer’s act of heroism would have paid off.

In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks in Paris, the French parliament has voted almost unanimously—551 in favor, six abstentions—to approve a three-month extension of the state of emergency, giving significant powers to the security forces. A similar development has ensued in Belgium.

EU lawmaker Rachida Dati offered her own set of recommendations in response to the Paris massacre. After applying “wisdom and responsibility” to her “choice of words,” she offered her “constructive solutions for our security and stability.” She argued for:

  • An EU-wide “system of recording passenger names” and a “more systematic collection and use of data on passengers entering or leaving the EU” in order to “trace the movements of radicalized individuals”
  • “Reinforced controls along the Schengen area’s external borders must also be organized”;
  • “Much greater cooperation [on] urgently needed…surveillance”;
  • And confiscating “passports, even withdraw nationality, when there is a national security threat.”

As if the myriad surveillance techniques and border control mechanisms weren’t enough, Dati is frantically proposing even tighter security measures. In calling Angela Merkel’s more open stance towards migration an “error of judgment,” Dati, along with other EU officials, have sustained the fantasy that what happened in Paris is inherently external and alien to Europe. And yet she herself admits that the attackers were homegrown.

The perpetrators of the Paris massacres were European. The arrival of the Islamic State (ISIS or IS) merely set the scene for a timely collusion between a failed policy of assimilation in a European state and the disastrous results of endless military adventures in the context of the “war on terror.”

For years now, the Schengen agreement, arguably one of the most innovative legacies of the European project, has made passport-free travel within Europe a reality, both for EU and non-EU citizens. The agreement’s success even inspired Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey to come up with their version of Schengen in 2011 that they dubbed “Shamgen.”

And yet in the wake of the Paris attacks, the threat of suspension looms large over this indisputable EU achievement. France is now proposing even tighter travel restrictions across Europe. The repeated suspension of Schengen by different states risks making a mockery of the whole agreement altogether. As a member of the European parliament points out, the French demands would “push Schengen flexibility to a point it hasn’t gone to before,” while technically remaining within the terms of the agreement.

Lest we forget, IS is under an agonizingly tight siege in Iraq and Syria. The group’s success in branding itself as the embodiment of naked cruelty has provoked an unprecedentedly broad coalition against it. And yet the enthusiastic rush to securitize different facets of life is instead likely to actually incentivize terrorism and social unrest. Whether you are IS, a far-right extremist hoping to stir up xenophobic sentiments, or a high school student suffering from boredom, causing widespread mayhem and police mobilization requires as much sophistication and innovation as making a simple phone call or writing an email about a bomb scare.

For a superstate that prides itself on its high regard for reason and rational thought, the European Union has shown utter contempt for both. It was the securitarian policies of the post-911 years that gave rise to the IS monstrosity in Iraq and Syria. If the ”war on terror” and the history of integration in Europe are any guide, we should, in theory at least, have acquired enough know-how and expertise on how not to respond to a tragic event like the one in Paris. And yet the security industry appears to be our only source of refuge and consolation in our moment of despair. In the words of Lucia Zedner, the “pursuit of security has become an enterprise in its own right with a dynamic distinct from crimes rates.” She adds, “[S]ecurity promises reassurances but in fact increases anxiety.” It “presumes social exclusion” and “erodes civil liberties.”

From Carl Schmitt to Marcel Gauchet, intellectuals have been telling us about the new religion(s) of our modern “secular” age. And yet we might very well suggest a different new religion: security. European politicians now candidly talk of a prolonged state of emergency, and a readiness to go to any lengths to preserve the now commodified—and yet never really attainable—notion called “security.” If the current state of panic and hysteria in Europe arouses a self-congratulatory glee in those who planned the November 13 attacks, we only have ourselves to blame.

In a move that will undoubtedly come as a disappointment to those hoping for a further escalation of violence, President Francois Hollande reaffirmed his country’s earlier promise to take in 30,000 refugees within the next two years. But he also promises that the screening process for refugees would make sure “there are zero risks for our country.” In a political climate that salvation is sought through the religious pursuit of security, Hollande understandably neglected one thing: there’s no such thing as “zero risks.”

Sajjad Safaei is a PhD student at the Max Planck Institute of Social Anthropology in Germany. He can be reached by email here. Photo of Rachida Dati courtesy of UMP Photos via Flickr. 

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