In July of 2016 four violent attacks in three different German cities claimed the lives of 13 people. The first anti-terrorism policy draft published in the aftermath of the attacks suggests increased surveillance, more police and more thorough background-checks on immigrants.[i] At the same time, some conservative German politicians have proposed banning certain Islamic garments such as the burka and niqab.[ii] Such security- and information-focused measures have become commonplace across the Western world and are about to be enforced in Germany to counter terror attacks in the short term. However, their narrow and often essentialist methods have the potential to reinforce the very divisions in society to which terrorism contributes. Below, I first sketch how counter-terrorism can deteriorate societal dialogue, trust and cohesion, before proposing a remedy in the form of the psychological concept of resilience.
An official terrorism-prevention strategy focused on surveillance assumes that potential terrorists can be identified by certain tell-tale characteristics such as ethnicity or religious identification. Members of society who exhibit these characteristics – all too often members of cultural or ethnic minorities – are singled out and scrutinised according to the logic of probability and guilt by association. If such a strategy – in concert with more questionable measures such as banning symbols of religious minorities – dominate public discourse, they further legitimise an “us versus them”, insider-outsider logic. This security-focused logic writ large has the potential to be extremely divisive for any society, fostering feelings of mutual suspicion, xenophobia and fear, dividing the public into identity-based groups. In a society thus divided, genuine public discourse becomes increasingly difficult to achieve.[iii] Citizens become more vulnerable to anti-liberal, anti-democratic ideologies and often more violence emerges from groups who feel threatened. Current political discussion in Germany is a good example of this process.
Despite the diverse backgrounds of the attackers, the attacks in Germany reignited discussions about the causes of such violence and about the potential negative aftermath of Germany’s response to the refugee crisis.[iv] The German populist party Alternative für Deutschland has experienced a staggering rise in popularity over the past year and achieved double-digit representation in recent state-level elections.[v] In addition, there has been a series of extreme right attacks against refugee homes and ethnic minorities. The combination of repeated terror attacks and the security-informed logic of terrorism prevention are driving communities apart. Anti-terror policies are clearly required. Citizens are concerned and they expect their governments to protect them. Yet, additional measures are also needed: measures that do not simply pursue the immediate prevention of terrorism, but help societies resist the centrifugal tendencies of mutual suspicion, fear and division. I believe the psychological concept of resilience provides useful strategies for working towards this goal.
The concept of resilience has its origins in the material sciences. Originally, resilience described the ability of a material to bounce back from shocks or impacts.[vi] More recently, it has been adopted by other sciences, most famously psychology. In this discipline, resistance is a positive coping quality attributed to individuals who are able to constructively recover from major traumas or shocks in their lives.[vii] Although there is no single accepted definition of the term, resilience defined as the ‘ability to resist, absorb, recover from or successfully adapt to adversity or a change in conditions’ is suitable for grasping what societal resilience might entail.[viii]
Importantly, resilience does not mean simply ignoring negative experiences in favour of a naïve optimism. Rather, it entails a forward-looking constructive realism, acknowledging shocks and traumas as part of a diverse life experience and not allowing them disproportional destructive power. As resilience is a practice-focused state, it is not enough to understand what resilience requires. An individual or collective looking to become resilient must devise a strategy for becoming so.
On its website, the American Psychological Association (APA) has listed a number of strategies for fostering resilience in individuals.[ix] They can be easily modified to become strategies for a more resilient society. While many of the strategies could simply be pointers for individuals who want to contribute toward making their society more resilient, they can also be reflected on a higher level in policy choices.
The APA suggests focusing on developing strong relationships with friends and family to increase resilience. A society-focused adaption of this strategy could be to encourage exchange and foster connections between groups of different backgrounds. This could start with the simple act of introducing oneself to one’s neighbours, but on a greater scale could mean expanding the government budget for parks, public meeting places and initiatives that encourage intra-societal exchange. The Erasmus Programme in Europe is a brilliant example of inter-cultural connection between young people in Europe, which is continuously being expanded due to its great popularity.[x] With an increased budget and political initiative, it could even be expanded to countries outside of the EU.
Keeping things in perspective and avoiding seeing crises as insurmountable problems
What the APA means by this is fairly self-explanatory – few personal crises mean the literal end of the world and there are usually different ways to perceive them. This is the same for political problems such as violent attacks. The real probability of any individual becoming the victim of a terrorist attack is infinitesimally small and individuals would do well to frequently remind themselves of this fact.[xi]
The media and government have an undeniable obligation to inform citizens about attacks, but at the same time they should avoid blowing the threat out of proportion. Rather, they should help citizens resist succumbing to the logic of fear. Fostering a public discussion about the origins of terrorism and politically motivated violence can help tame the spectre of arbitrariness and irrationality that is often closely connected to terrorist attacks. This educational aspect is mainly the responsibility of the media.
A number of great examples of calm, collected analysis can be found in recent German publications.[xii] Politicians, on the other hand, should concentrate on refraining from using fearmongering strategies for political gain. Unfortunately, this kind of integrity is too often lacking in the political sphere.
Looking for opportunities for self-discovery
In all crises, there is a potential for improvement and growth, whether in individuals or societies. Here, individual and societal resilience could mean focusing on the positive qualities of one’s society that one does not want to see undermined by terrorism by excessive security policies.
For example, the right of physical integrity, in which one may wish to include the right to choose one’s clothes, is an essential right in many liberal democracies. Many political leaders emphasised the importance of this right in response to the illiberal policies of the Islamic State. The ban on burkas and niqabs threatens to undermine self-determination in Germany.
The logic of security can only support this trade-off of personal freedoms for the benefit of security, but the logic of resilience encourages us to remember our values and defend them. It also challenges us to improve ourselves, to look at the origins of a crisis and do better. Right now, this could include questioning our treatment of the Middle East and refugees, as well as challenging societal stigmata attached to the disenchanted and the mentally ill. Once more the media can be a good platform for these discussions, but it is paramount that the conversation is prioritised in all parts of society, be it in religious institutions, universities, schools or civil society organisations and NGOs.
Taking decisive actions
This is where resilience connects with security. The ASA advises individuals to take concrete steps to address their problem. Individuals may want to attend demonstrations or write to their representatives to feel more empowered. The method of choice to foster such societal resilience appears to be conventional terrorism prevention strategies. Resilience does not deny the utility of such policies, it merely points towards a number of further strategies that can help a society prepare for, cope with and recover from times of crisis without resorting to further acts of subjugation and violence.
Thus, the concept of resilience can provide a useful starting point for societies that feel that a series of crises have undermined their social cohesion and peace. It also provides an interesting complement to the prevalent logic of security and has the potential to reign-in excessive anti-terrorism policies while not contradicting security activities. Of course, resilience is not a panacea to all the ailments societies experience in crisis. It is a vague and contested concept which does not provide specific remedies to context-dependent problems. What it can do is provide a novel philosophical angle to help us reassess our priorities and thought-processes to resist being governed completely by the logic of fear.
Magdalena Krakau is a postgraduate student in International Public Management, specialising in European and East Asian affairs, at Sciences Po (Paris Institute of Political Studies). Having studied at the University of Sheffield and at the Australian National University, she wrote her undergraduate thesis on German-American security relations and has a keen interest in security and diplomacy. She has previously published policy analysis in Global Policy and interned for Peace Brigades International in Hamburg. Being of German origin, she is deeply concerned about the increasing populist undertones in German politics in the lead-up to the 2017 federal election.
[i] I. Dachwitz, ‘Große Koalition winkt Anti-Terror-Gesetz durch’, Netzpolitik.org, https://netzpolitik.org/2016/grosse-koalition-winkt-anti-terror-gesetz-durch/ (24.06.2016).
[ii] J. Huggler, ‘Germany proposes burka ban for schools, universities and public workers’, The Telegraph, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/08/19/germany-proposes-burka-ban-for-schools-universities-and-public-w/ (19.09.2016) ; ‘French Senate approves ‘Burka ban’’, The Telegraph, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/france/8002914/French-Senate-approves-Burka-ban.html (14.09.2010) ; A. Travis, ‘Fear of immigration drove the leave victory – not immigration itself’, The guardian, http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2016/jun/24/voting-details-show-immigration-fears-were-paradoxical-but-decisive (24.06.2016).
[iii] For some interesting examples and explanations on the deeply divisive effects of counter-terrorism strategies and us-vs. them logic, see: A. Hoque, ‘Young British Muslims alienated by ‘us versus them’ rhetoric of counter-terrorism’, The Conversation, http://theconversation.com/young-british-muslims-alienated-by-us-versus-them-rhetoric-of-counter-terrorism-46117 (29.09.2015); J. Matusitz, Terrorism and Communication: A Critical Introduction; or E. Said’s Orientalism.
[iv] P. Faigle and L. Caspari, ‘Amok im Kopf’, Die Zeit, http://www.zeit.de/gesellschaft/zeitgeschehen/2016-07/taeter-muenchen-amoklauf-attentat-oez-schuesse (23.07.2016); ‘Einzelner Täter, kollektive Trauer’, FAZ, http://www.faz.net/aktuell/politik/inland/attentat-von-muenchen-einzelner-taeter-kollektive-trauer-14354828.html (23.07.2016); ‘Messerangriff in Reutlingen offenbar Beziehungstat’ heute.de, http://www.heute.de/angriff-mit-machete-in-reutlingen-offenbar-beziehungstat-44532396.html (25.07.2016)
[v] ‚Stimmenanteile der AfD bei den jeweils letzten Landtagswahlen in den Bundesländern bis September 2016’ statista, https://de.statista.com/statistik/daten/studie/320946/umfrage/ergebnisse-der-afd-bei-den-landtagswahlen/ (2016).
[vi] M. Peciłło, The concept of resilience in OSH management: a review of approaches, http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/10803548.2015.1126142?needAccess=true (14.12.2015).
[vii] P.C. Shastri, Resilience: Building immunity in psychiatry, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3777343/ (2013).
[viii] US Department of Homeland Security Risk Lexicon, https://www.dhs.gov/xlibrary/assets/dhs_risk_lexicon.pdf (2008), p. 23.
[ix] ‚The Road to Resilience’, American Psychological Association, http://www.apa.org/helpcenter/road-resilience.aspx (2016).
[x] Erasmus website: https://ec.europa.eu/programmes/erasmus-plus/node_en.
[xi] In order to avoid miscommunication on this point: I do by no means want to say that the loss of life or the personal loss of victim’s families and friends are insignificant. They matter very much. I merely mean to reaffirm the exceedingly low statistical probability of becoming a victim, without denying that the loss of even a single human life is terrible.
[xii] ‚Wächst die Terrorangst zu Recht?, ARD, https://www.tagesschau.de/inland/kurzerklaert-terrorangst-101.html (6.08.2016).