On Monday evening I landed in Berlin. Two friends and I were heading to Germany for the first time for a cute Christmassy break and the opportunity to explore the history of a fascinating city. We got off the flight and, as we queued for passport control, a notification popped up on my phone.
'Lorry attack kills 9 in Berlin' I think was the original BBC News headline. My first response was to laugh. It seemed so ludicrous - the timing so ridiculous - that we were landing in the city just as this terror attack had taken place. Minutes before we were excitedly planning our visits to the Christmas markets but now the mood had changed altogether. It's hard to know what to do with that sensation, particularly as life about us went on as normal, while we were standing in an archetypal airport queue.
Berlin is a city good at creating memorials. To be blunt, I guess it kind of has to be.
Once the news story had been read and digested, the next step was to realise a response was necessary. Firstly, that involved telling people who knew I was in Berlin that I was fine and far away from the attack. For people to be concerned about me - personally - when 12 people died in the lorry attack, in a city with a population of over 3.6 million, is an interesting commentary on our self-centred reading of the news and viewpoint on the world. I think I managed to get in touch with most people before they saw the headlines - bar my mother who sent a couple of panicked texts before realising I was fine.
It didn't occur to me to be scared as I wondered about the city. Well, not until my friends pointed out that this is something we perhaps ought to feel. It didn’t feel brave to go on a tour of the major tourist attractions on Tuesday morning, until a friend of a friend said it was. It didn't occur to me that the city was quieter than normal until the tour guide remarked on it. We saw the Berlin Wall and the remnants of the Nazi regime and talked about the atrocities afflicted on the city in its gruesome past.
There's something about the recent attack which places everything in a slightly different context. Berlin is, to us, a place of death and suffering and sadness, no longer distanced and sanitised from its twentieth century past. I realised that I'd never seen a capital city this subdued, this muted, the people walking purposefully, disengaged from those about then. Then again, I'd never seen Berlin before.
Perhaps it's insensitive of me but I can't help feeling that to change my behaviour would be to let the terrorists win. The minute I get scared, the minute I stay inside, the minute I let that faceless entity change my behaviour is the minute I surrender and render them victorious. I'm not asking everyone to do that. Terrorism is fucking terrifying, and I'm not attempting to hide from that fact. And I can't even begin to comprehend the emotions of losing a loved one to such an inhuman action. But this approach - when and where possible - feels a way of taking back control against an uncontrollable situation, fighting an unknown enemy. It doesn't mean I don't jump at each siren as an ambulance rushes past, or slip into momentary fear when the subway takes a split-second longer to move off.
Terrorism is in itself an attack of defiance against the unspoken tenets of the Western world. The right to freedom and safety - to walk down the street or to the Christmas market unafraid and without doing so feeling like a political act. The right to life. This is a system, an ideology, which the recent and ongoing IS attacks have made feel vulnerable. In a city as auspicious as Berlin, one cannot help but wonder if there is a next, a replacement. The buildings have travelled from Kaiser to Republic to Third Reich to Iron Curtain. Western democracy is the current phase of this succession, and terrorism currently the primary destabilising antagonist force.
Berlin is a city good at creating memorials. To be blunt, I guess it kind of has to be. Berliners remember its past by the poignant and decorous commemorations which fill the city. I couldn't help but feel that it is a place beginning to process its past, filling me with an optimism for the way the fresh wound opened by this attack will heal. It won't be easy and it won't be pretty, but Berlin has done it before, and may have to again
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