PARIS: Europe must learn to deal with the likely deaths of many more innocent people in jihadist terror attacks, experts have warned as Belgium struggled to get back to normal after a week of bloodshed and extremist manhunts.
The Brussels attacks, in which 31 people died and more than 300 were injured, came only four months after Paris was hit for a second time in less than a year by major jihadist atrocities.
And this may only be the start of Europe’s suffering, according to Simon Palombi, international security expert at the London-based think-thank Chatham House.
“We are not doing anyone any favors by not being honest about this. We face a serious and long-term threat and this will not be the last attack by a long shot,” he said.
Politicians on the continent must prepare the public for further deadly violence because “they dropped the ball in not taking the threat as seriously as they should have when Britain and the US did.”
He was also highly critical of EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini who shed tears about “a very sad day for Europe” at a press conference during her visit to Jordan where she said relations between the EU and the Muslim country sent a “most powerful message of strength and friendship” in the wake of the suicide bombings in Brussels.
“It doesn’t help the public one little bit when they see their leaders crying on television,” claimed Palombi. “We have to toughen up in some respects. Emotions are understandable at these times, but politicians need to show an example.”
A former UN counter-terrorism expert, Palombi also argued that Europe’s complacency had left it dangerously vulnerable.
The jihadists “have found the weakness in European intelligence systems, which cannot be solved overnight, and which will allow them to strike again. The public must be prepared for this.”
How people cope
People can live with “terrible but infrequent violence of the type of which Europe is experiencing now,” said John Brewer, professor of post-conflict studies at Queen’s University in Belfast.
“While bombs were going off in Northern Ireland for decades every other day, people still went to work, fell in love and got married,” he told Agence France–Presse. “It was those routines that got them through it.”
Having studied the long-running Sri Lankan and Northern Ireland conflicts, Brewer found societies can learn to adapt. “People cope by continuing with their normal lives and by distancing themselves from those who are suffering most.”
For psychologist Carole Damiani whose group Paris Aide helps victims of the attacks in the French capital, “people don’t have a choice — they have to take the threat on board. But we have to steer a path between the pitfalls of being hyper vigilant about possible attacks and to pretend nothing has happened.”
Social media, however, is complicating that process, Brewer warned.
He said it has “collapsed the distancing mechanism we put in place to protect ourselves” from extreme violence.
Social media trauma
“We are being exposed to far more trauma and emotion from these attacks than we would have in the past, because the violence is being recorded on people’s phones who were right there, which can traumatize everyone,” he said.
But the technology also has a positive side. “The very democratic nature of social media means we all can share your distress which makes it easier to bear.”
Psychiatrist Patrick Legeron, who specializes in stress disorders at Sainte Anne hospital in Paris, said the attacks had created “a very strong feeling of insecurity and invisible, non-controllable danger.”
“A lot of people have realized that the problem is massive and will be recurrent,” added French psychologist and criminologist Jean-Pierre Bouchard. But “we cannot live in a permanent state of anxiety.”
“Some people are going to change their behavior, and avoid certain areas they find risky,” he said, but most will not.
For Michel Olivier, however, a former French special forces officer whose book “Ne pas subir” (Do not give in) was published this week, all has changed utterly.
“In a country at war you do not live as before,” he said, referring to France’s state of emergency which is still in force.
He said people needed to take responsibility for their own security.
“You should not allow yourself to be transported passively” on a bus or metro, he said, but to be aware of possible risks and sit or stand at the back or the front of trains to be able to get out faster in case of emergency.