Sunday longread: Students in the eye of Europe’s storm

With rising Covid-19 case numbers, Europe now also faces another threat in the form of terrorism

Like Ireland, central Europe has been currently grappling with a second onslaught of Covid-19. Since mid-October, a plethora of European nations have re-imposed lockdowns, culminating in curfews, compulsory mask-wearing and dining limitations for citizens across the continent. The rapid escalation of Covid-19 cases is clearly a cause for concern, yet the people of Europe have an additional force with which to reckon: an apparent re-emergence of terrorism.

As with the hike in virus incidences, a recent resurgence in extreme terrorist activity is sending shockwaves through Europe. Widespread trepidation looms, following a series of deadly atrocities in Austria, Germany and France, over the course of the last month.

On October 4, two tourists were seriously injured and one was killed in an attack in the German city of Dresden. Moreover, the same month saw a pair of merciless events in France: history teacher Samuel Paty was beheaded in the Parisian suburb of Conflans-Saint Honorine after showing cartoons from Charlie Hebdo to his class. Just a couple of weeks later, three more people were murdered in a knife attack at the Notre Dame Basilica in Nice. Most recently, on November 2 a lone gunman of suspected connection to the Islamic State shot four people dead and injured 22 in Vienna, a city usually renowned for its harmony.

This influx of extreme right-wing terror attacks comes at a tempestuous time for Europe. Authorities find themselves in a contentious debacle as they attempt to simultaneously tackle both Covid-19 and terrorism. However, it is more than just governments bearing the burden of the fight. The question that remains is: amid restrictions and lockdowns, how is the battle against terrorism affecting the people of Europe?

Trinity News spoke with some Trinity alumni and a Trinity student, all currently dotted across central Europe. The interviewees, based in Austria, Germany, and France, offered some primary intel on the terrorism situations in their respective countries, and portrayed the prevailing feelings and attitudes.

Comhall Fanning, who graduated from Trinity this year, is currently living in Vienna and was out for a walk near his apartment, about 3km away from the attack, when the chaos unfolded. He got a notification on his phone from an Austrian newspaper, alerting him that there had been a shooting in the city and that people were advised to stay indoors. He headed home right away and texted friends in the city to check that they were okay. He depicted the eeriness of waiting up until 1am to watch the press conference and mentioned the “sirens and helicopter noises [that were] audible in my room through the night”.

“There was definitely a very tense atmosphere on the street that night. Everyone was watching each other very closely.”

Fanning described the day after as “very strange”. The people of Vienna were instructed to stay home for the day as the police were unsure if everyone had been apprehended. Later that evening, it was declared safe to head out again and Fanning took a quick walk in his area. “There was definitely a very tense atmosphere on the street that night,” he reflected. “Everyone was watching each other very closely.”

Fanning explained the incredulity he experienced following the shootings: “Vienna is normally such a peaceful and safe city. I really couldn’t quite believe what had happened. Saturday morning was the first time that I went back into the inner city since the attack and it really did feel odd. I was pleased to see quite a few people on the street though.”

“It does seem quite worrying when considering the French attacks that happened just before the lockdown too,” he added. “The night in question was also unseasonably warm, around 19 degrees at the start of November. It meant that a lot of people were out in the city enjoying the night before lockdown.”

Despite feeling naturally “quite low and stressed” in the ensuing days, Fanning feels positively about Vienna’s ability to recover and to counter such heinous acts. “I have been quite surprised with how quickly the city has come back to life, there seems to be a strong determination that we should not let this stop us going about our lives,” he remarked. “Coming back from work on Friday afternoon, I was taken aback to be on a crowded underground with standing room only, considering that we are in lockdown and it was only four days after the attack.”

“I asked him if he felt another attack in Germany was imminent. He responded calmly, saying ‘yes, it’s only a matter of time.’”

Similarly, the general morale in Germany too exhibits a sense of optimism, according to Caoimhe Gordon, another Trinity graduate, who has lived in the Rhineland city of Düsseldorf for the past two years. She regards the German reaction to the string of attacks as “nothing if not resilient and realistic.” She recalled a conversation with her German housemate, following the happenings in Vienna last week: “I asked him if he felt another attack in Germany was imminent. He responded calmly, saying ‘yes, it’s only a matter of time.’”

This pragmatism is reflected in Gordon’s feelings towards living in Germany, even after a sequence of such attacks. “I never truly feel on edge”, she admitted. “The Germans have an uncanny ability to deal with a crisis with enviable ease, as was seen with the first wave of coronavirus, so I have faith that they will counter the problem.”

Furthermore, Gordon alluded to a series of raids that took place just last week in three cities across Germany due to suspected links with the Vienna attacker. “This sort of news update is comforting,” she added. “It illustrates the speedy reaction [in Germany] in times of turmoil.”

Molly Purcell, third year student of European Studies, arrived in France in early September for an Erasmus year like no other. Despite being naturally attentive to the country’s constant state of alert, Purcell explained how she “soon settled into normal life without giving the possibility of an attack much thought”.

“You’re also aware of trying to strike a balance between exercising caution, but not stopping yourself from living your life completely.”

She recounted President Macron’s pledge at the beginning of October to fight against what he calls “Islamic Separatism”, which attracted significant criticism from the Muslim world, both inside France and beyond. The beheading of school teacher Samuel Paty occured in the weeks following Macron’s announcement. “This definitely brought the issue more to our attention,” Purcell declared. “But you’re also aware of trying to strike a balance between exercising caution, but not stopping yourself from living your life completely.”

Purcell and her classmates were on their midterm holidays from university when a spate of attacks took place all over France. “While there was definitely a sense of grim inevitability to it, it was no less terrifying especially coming from Ireland, which seems so relatively sheltered from such random violence,” she remarked. “My friends and I decided to curb our activities, especially around crowded, more touristy areas, as news of foiled attacks, from verified sources and otherwise, rolled in on Twitter.”

From Purcell’s experience, “French people seem to take it [terror threats] in their stride.” Echoing Fanning’s comments on Vienna, Purcell explained how the Nice stabbing also happened directly prior to the re-entry into lockdown – perhaps another indication of calculated planning. 

Like many others living in France, Purcell is relatively sanguine about the government’s propensity to suppress the risk into the future. “If problems like Islamaphobia and the marginalisation of immigrants are tackled in some way, the country can hopefully make headway in countering the broader issue of terrorism,” she said. 

Similar to the spread of the virus, such sporadic attacks remain utterly unpredictable. For many, it is this brutal reality that is most harrowing. In the face of terrorism, some will be especially susceptible; some will be protected, but no one is immune. There are some positive progressions, like the recent draft of an EU declaration which aims to prevent radicalisation, for example. Alas, in the meantime, the people must sustain their apparent drive to rally and their capacity to remain level-headed.

“Die Stärke wächst im Geduldgarten” is an old German adage which translates as: “In your calm is your strength.” No doubt such words are emboldening the hearts of many Europeans at present as they sit at home and await a brighter tomorrow. As Fanning aptly put it: “It is very important for everyone to stick together at the moment.”