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Home Opinion Politicians have a duty to refute fear, not fuel it
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Politicians have a duty to refute fear, not fuel it

Hanno Burmester - 08 December 2016

As fear of terrorism increasingly haunts Europe we must reflect more intensely on the dangers facing society

A night of molestation and sexual violence in Cologne. Attacks in Paris, Brussels and Nice. A young man running amok in Munich, followed by a dysfunctional bomb in Ansbach. An Afghan man assailing commuters with an axe on a Würzburg train and someone attacking pedestrians with a machete in Reutlingen. A Syrian man’s plan to bomb a Berlin airport, ending in suicide shortly after his arrest in Chemnitz. 

Different events, mostly unrelated, but told as a coherent narrative: migrants, bringing terror and violence to Europe. The political debates in Berlin, accordingly, increasingly focus on domestic security. Both Social and Christian Democrats know that whoever wants to win the federal elections in 2017 needs to offer measures against the terrorist threat.

The underlying theme, of course, is not security but fear. Citizens who are afraid are citizens who feel discontent. And those who feel discontent probably feel no inclination to vote for one of the governing parties.

So we mean fear when we talk about security. But are people really as afraid as politicians in Berlin believe? Or has political Berlin just changed the focus? Is it because pollsters have started to ask questions about terror, security and fear? Is it because media coverage intertwines unrelated events into one narrative of terror?

It is a chicken-or-egg problem: are politicians forced to focus on domestic security because people are afraid? Or are people afraid because politicians focus so intensely on security, and thus stimulate the very emotion they want to stifle with their measures?

What would happen if politicians spoke not about security, but about serenity, freedom, and bravery? What if pollsters asked: “How relaxed do you feel after the events we experienced yesterday? How quickly are you planning to go back to business as usual?” What if the press wrote: “Most people we talked to after the attacks were quite calm and relaxed. Things went back to normal quickly. Most worry more about being hit by a car than being killed by a suicide attack”? Would the collective emotion be different then?

When you talk to politicians in Berlin these days, they will tell you that they “need to take people’s fears seriously”. This response is rooted in the belief that politicians or journalists who do not take seriously the fear of “normal people” do not take them seriously at all. Which, of course, is wrong.

Can it instead be a sign of responsibility and empathy to not take someone’s fears seriously? Fear, after all, is nothing but an informative feeling. Psychology knows three atavistic responses to it: fight, flight, or freeze. But we tend to forget that humans, as learning, complex organisms, have the capability to develop a fourth strategy in coping with fear: mindfulness.

We can learn to mindfully note our fear, and then analyse it, and then act. Which also means that we can take a step back and survey our emotional state, instead of letting us be absorbed by it. The latter, of course, is what we currently let happen societally. Instead of mindfully coping with our fear, we constantly increase it. We talk about the things that make us afraid. We play out scenarios of possible attacks. We increase security measures, which, of course, makes us feel more afraid.

Why don’t we just refocus instead? Why don’t we note our fear, do what makes sense to prevent new attacks, and then readjust the collective mental lens? Which means getting back to normal everyday routine, and the very real everyday threats that somehow, paradoxically, don’t make us feel afraid: salt, sugar, fat, cars, work overloads. Even though these things kill a ridiculous number of people every month.

Journalists zoom in on the terrorist threat for sales reasons. Articles about Islamist maniacs sell many more newspaper copies and generate many more clicks than fatal bike injuries. At the same time, it seems fair to expect otherwise from politicians. After all, we have opted for representative democracy because we want our representatives to be able to take a step back, to make wise decisions, to not be absorbed by the unproductive fears of citizens’ debates.

In other words, is it not our politicians’ duty to not mirror our fears? Politicians vehemently oppose this stance, of course. We need to empathise! We cannot rationalise in these emotional times!

Think of a child, deeply afraid of a very rare disease one of her nursery friends has fallen victim to. What would you do as a parent? Tell your kid to be vigilant, in a state of constant alarm? Increase safety measures, make the teachers talk about the death every day? Would you focus your family conversations on the dangers of sickness, and the omnipresent risk of dying?

Or would you say: “This was a very rare disease your friend died of. Do not be afraid. We will do our best to make sure you stay healthy and happy.” You would, of course, inform yourself about the illness, do your best to check the risks, and to undertake the prevention measures that make sense. But you would not tell your kid about it. Why make a fuss when there is no significant, everyday risk?

Now, politicians are not our parents, and the state is not our father. At the same time, I am wondering: why do German politicians behave like the parents in the first scenario, even though that increases collective fear?

One reason may be that we need to reflect more intensely on the complex nature of terrorism. It is a threat that cannot be met by gradually increasing spending. All the same, politicians still treat it like a Fordist equation: the more terrorism there is, the more resources we spend on it.

But do we really believe that more spending will bring less terrorism? That more talking will generate more awareness? That more manpower will bring better information?

What if all that is false? What if complexity asks for a different mindset, instead of doubling up on what already exists?

Political leaders who seriously reflect on their role know all this, of course. They know that there is no silver bullet against terrorism. They know that most measures they publicly call for will help satisfy their core clientele, but solve nothing else. They know that the mechanistic logic of increased spending fails to deliver anything of significance, except for useful symbols.

Which, of course, is a paradox. Those very people who suggest we need to take the public’s fear seriously, and thus mirror it, hand out blanks when it comes to offering solutions. They decided to pretend, which also means to establish an unwritten rule: do not speak publicly about your cluelessness. Why? Maybe because they are afraid. Of losing their seats, power, and the illusion of control.

Hanno Burmester is a policy fellow at Das Progressive Zentrum

This work is supported by the Barrow Cadbury Fund. Its migration programme aims to promote an immigration system that is fair to both migrants and established residents and a policy and public debate on migration and integration that is based on shared values as well as evidence

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The Policy Network Observatory promotes critical debate and reflection on progressive politics. It is centre-left orientated but determinedly challenges social democracy. It is pro-European but restlessly questions EU institutions and practices.

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