Another Brick in the Wall

As I write this, Madrid is investigating Islamic Extremist links to the capital’s train bombings, and Europe is once more back on Full Terror Alert. It appears those countries who collaborated with the US in Iraq are to be punished — but for most of us working and socialising here in Europe’s capital cities, it’s nothing unusual. France has dealt with Algerian factions, Spain has clashed with Basque separatists, the IRA has repeatedly bombed Britain, Turkey has had its mosques blasted apart, and Germany has faced the spectre of barnstorming neo-nazis.

Familiarity with such attacks makes us blasé if not quite complacent; we know how to reroute our journeys home around police cordons to reach a pharmacy or grocery store, and will not only go to clubs, bars and restaurants later but will fall into spontaneous protest marches at the weekend. Staging a demo is something Europeans know how to do well. In Paris recently I watched a river of black umbrellas pass beneath my window in immaculate columns as protesting civil servants marched through the city centre. In London you can pick your own protest, from the lack of cycle-lanes to the proposed ban on fox-hunting, and arrange for some nice police stewards to hold up traffic on the busiest thoroughfares while you head for the nearest McDonald’s armed with bricks (attacking a fast food outlet is de rigeur).

Most European cities have a central square that becomes a natural gathering point for protestors. In Madrid, a spontaneous outpouring of grief and anger brought three million onto the streets in a display that was all the more moving for being so orderly. Such events open up debates on TV that quickly spread to pubs and bars. The natural instinct at such times is to go outside and find others; you’ll be asked for your political views, and you’ll be expected to ask in return. Europeans prefer you to have informed opinions regardless of your age, outlook, and choice of haircut, however mad and annoying they might be. In fact, you lose invitations to dinner by keeping the conversation too polite, as there is no greater crime than being boring, and ignorance is not an option when the news is breaking all around you. Getting into an argument about politics with total strangers is usually much easier than catching the waiter’s eye.

That’s not to say terrorism has no adverse side-effects on urban life beyond the terrible consequences of the act itself. We tend to check unattended packages in public places; there are concrete barriers surrounding the American embassy (the residents of London’s Grosvenor Square have lodged complaints from an aesthetic point of view); and there are no litter bins on the subways, anymore. But even now, I’m a bit surprised at how easy it is to enter buildings. Open access and accountability are regarded as the privileges of freedom, and that freedom was most badly damaged in the 1980s, not by terrorism but its reverse, by the rise of the capitalist right in Europe, when private corporations slammed their doors on the public.

If there has been an upside to the increased terrorist activity, it’s that Europe’s member countries share a new level of interconnectivity that goes beyond the uniting currency of the Euro. No one wants to return to the dark, divisive life of check points, barriers, walls and borders. The Channel Tunnel connects Britain to France; East and West Berlin have been relinked; no-one halts the train to check passports between France and Italy’; and there’s no scrabbling for different currencies at stores. If you work in Belgium or Switzerland, you can find yourself driving between countries with the ease of crossing state lines. The worst thing would be to go back to the old ways, and attention has become focussed on the hardships faced by economic migrants. The lack of a common language fails to deter relocators, so I am surrounded by more nationalities than ever before — except, that is, for Americans.

Europe must now seem prohibitively expensive; the dollar is down and each new terrorist outrage sends the tourism figures into freefall. It’s a pity, because a little culture-clashing helps make fast friends of us all. The problem is just as bad coming from this side. While not quite closing its borders, the USA has certainly made itself a pain in the butt to travel through. This fall, the process is due to tighten again, and before being granted visas, we outsiders will be required to queue for personal interviews in which health status and political affiliations will be subject to further scrutiny.

What can Americans do to help prevent this wall from being erected between us? Consider a vacation in a potential war zone — you’ll be helping the local economy and we’ll be glad to see you. While my English friends were heading to New York for bargain jeans this winter, I joined other Europeans on holiday in the Middle East — empty beaches, cool bars and dune-boarding safaris, anyone?