Why words matter after Berlin attack

Story highlights

  • Carolyn Williams-Gerdes: Words matter not just to legitimate heads of peaceful states, but to malevolent foreign actors
  • Germany should not turn its back on the spirit with which it opened its doors to those genuinely seeking refuge, she says

Carolyn Williams-Gerdes is a writer and communications strategist based in Berlin. The views expressed are her own.

(CNN)A day after truck plowed through a Christmas market in one of Berlin's busiest shopping areas, killing 12 people, no one is disputing that it was a deliberate act. Yet German authorities initially appeared reluctant to describe the incident as an act of terrorism.

Carolyn Williams-Gerdes
Attempting to explain the reluctance to the media over using the word "attack," Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere noted the "psychological effect" that words can have. And it is true that some words are fiercely evocative -- even as we struggle to define them.
Just what, for example, is terrorism? What distinguishes a terrorist from any other violent criminal? The word "terror" arguably speaks less of the act than it does of the emotions it elicits. "I feel terrified and, therefore, the act was one of terror."
    One thing, though, has been made clear time and again: an unfortunate consequence of citing terrorism is that it confirms the gravity of the act and, by extension, acknowledges the success of the perpetrator. After all, the reach of a terrorist extends beyond immediate physical harm, creating emotional societal wounds that may be both more numerous and enduring than other violent acts.
    So-called terrorists are not the only ones to benefit from the psychological effects of the term. The rapid and chaotic arrival of nearly 1 million refugees to Germany in 2015 and 2016 -- and the suggestion by some that these groups are riddled with potential terrorists -- has transformed political discourse and drawn once-fringe groups into the mainstream.
    In advance of next year's presidential election here in Germany, a direct correlation between non-Western migrants and an official act of terrorism would be seen by many as political leverage.
    The reality is that terrorism is an emotive term, validating fear and creating a thirst for the ostensible security measures proposed by self-proclaimed saviors. Exaggerating the prevalence of terrorism -- and attributing responsibility to migrants -- has been an effective political tool among Germany's Western allies. It served as the impetus for Britain to vote to exit the European Union.
    So the Interior Minister knows that words matter. They don't just matter to legitimate heads of peaceful states. They also matter to malevolent foreign actors, who happily claim responsibility for the violent crimes that have kind-hearted citizens revisiting the warmth with which refugees were initially welcomed in 2015.
    Whether by design or by coincidence, there is an uncomfortable level of dissent when it comes to the relationship between tolerance and security.
    Following the attacks in Paris last year, it was widely asserted that Parisians would triumph only by continuing to live freely and with their signature joie de vivre. Germans are of a similar mind. Although numerous cases of sexual assault were reported last year on New Year's Eve, the same large-scale festivities will be held again this year -- only this time, the presence of police will no doubt be increased tenfold.
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    Germans will not cower in the face of adversity. But even more important for Germany than protecting such cherished traditions should be a desire to protect the sense of equality and community by which it has been defined for most of the past century -- the spirit with which it opened its doors to those genuinely seeking refuge.
    Roughly 10% of German citizens are of non-German origin, including about 5% of Turkish descent. There are as many Protestants as there are Catholics and about 5% of Germans are Muslim. Yet despite the mix of backgrounds and faiths, Germany is a peaceful country where citizens enjoy a good balance of freedom and safety. (In fact, Germany has not experienced an attack of last night's scale since 1980, when a right-wing extremist detonated a bomb at an Oktoberfest event in Munich.)
    All this suggests that while the violence perpetrated Monday was tragic and devastating, that there is another danger facing Germany and other nations -- that the current situation will be exploited to manufacture an environment in which long-term political decisions are rooted in short-term anxiety.
    And if Germany should fall prey to those who seek to manipulate fear, then the country will have been the victim of two tragedies.