And thriving in our panic-chasm like some bleached salamander is the far-right-winger, who finds in it his most suitable medium. He or she will always be ready to say the latest atrocity was the fault of the refugees, of the migrants, of the Muslims or the blacks or some other stigmatized racial or religious other. It doesn't matter that not one of the high-profile terrorist attacks in Europe this year has been traced to someone who entered the continent via the refugee route in the Balkans; it doesn't matter that most have been EU citizens or permanent residents; it doesn't matter that, as often as not, the primary victims of the Islamic State are Muslims -- including the nearly 300 people who were murdered a bare two weeks ago by bombings in Baghdad that were aimed chiefly at Shi'a neighborhoods. It doesn't matter because, at the level of instinct where these insinuations thrive, the far-rightist can always say, "Still though... we never used to have this trouble." And even if we did always have this trouble, even if the trouble is as old as humankind, even if violent death rates worldwide are actually still at historic lows, we believe him. Like Sandburg's "the people, the mob, the mass," we forget what we have learned every time. Because we have that chasm inside.
That's how it is for a few hours or days at least. But then we manage to get a handle on that feeling again, and the right-winger slinks away. We can achieve this, however, only to the extent that law enforcement officers and journalists do their jobs responsibly, to the extent that they help us to understand what actually happened and how. We learn the names of the dead. We learn the name of the perpetrator. And time and again we eventually realize that the attack that we thought had "changed everything"-- that -- according to the rightist -- was the devilish work of some racialized "other"-- was actually the product of far more prosaic and familiar forces. The collapse of the mental health system, the proliferation of guns produced by politically powerful and judicially untouchable weapons manufacturers and their lobbyists, the breakdown of community that has left an ever greater number of disturbed people who might once have received help living instead in a state of near-total isolation -- such things have become national institutions in this country. They are as American as apple pie.
This is what defeats -- or can help to mitigate -- the influence of the rightist in each of us: the accumulation of hard evidence. Our undifferentiated feeling of panic, our sense that we have been thrown into a hellish and unfamiliar world where the usual rules don't apply, is countered by realizing that each event has a particular story, was committed by particular people. This helps us as well to counter the impulse to scapegoat the innocent, to back off from generalizing narratives that throw whole categories of people into a cauldron of guilt by association.
Suppose, however, that a series of crimes were committed that, by their nature, left no or scarcely any physical evidence. Suppose it happened in the dark, in the middle of a large crowd, where there was no surveillance footage and the assailants could never be identified. Suppose too that the alleged crimes were of a sexual nature, and therefore touched on both ancient fears and contemporary narratives about sexual assault, and the whole welter of conflicted emotions and politics that surround them. In such a case, how would the right-winger eventually be tamped down within us? How could the panic be dissipated? Would it not spread? Would this event not in fact be the perfect outlet for all the panic that could not be fully expressed after all the other attacks, because -- as the facts came in -- they did not conform to our scapeoating narratives?
Which brings me to my first question: What actually happened in Cologne (Köln) last New Year's Eve? And why has it been so difficult to get a clear answer to this from the media coverage?
You probably remember seeing the coverage of the Köln attacks back in January, with German headlines suddenly being emblazoned with the neologism "Sex-Mob" and the Guardian speaking of a wave of "sex attacks." The allegation was that large numbers of men -- who quickly began to be described as of "Arab or North African appearance," etc. had descended on women during Cologne's Sylvesternacht celebration, formed rings around them in gangs of 20 or 30 at a time, and subjected the women to a range of crimes, from robbery to sexual assault (mostly taking the form of groping, molestation, and harassment by means of taking unwanted video recordings and photos, but also including two instances of rape).
There were reasons from the beginning to treat this narrative with some degree of caution. It was hard from the outset to get firm details of what had actually happened. As New Statesman journalist Helen Lewis writes, defending her decision not to immediately address news of the attacks in her column, "The reports were sketchy, in a language I abandoned after GCSEs half a lifetime ago, and from the start it was unclear if the attacks were perpetrated by existing migrants, new refugees, or even German citizens of Arab or North African origin."
Something like this uncertainty lay behind my own hesitation to make any kind of judgment about the events one way or the other last winter. I wanted to avoid the danger of saying something I'd later have cause to regret. When early reports of something are as vague and patchy as these were, after all, one is tempted to start plugging in the gaps for oneself -- a process that usually says far more about one's own internal biases and assumptions than about what actually happened. I decided to wait it out until some clearer portrait emerged -- and to hope in the meantime that the actions of some wouldn't be used as yet another pretext to scapegoat the many.
Usually such a wait pays off, and the outlines of who perpetrated what become clear in time. Yet when Köln reappeared in the headlines earlier this week, things made even less sense than before. Not only has the number of alleged victims in Cologne itself now increased by several hundred, there are also reports of similar crimes taking place in cities across Germany, making for a total of 1,200 sexual assaults committed across the country by some 2,000 men. Yet no one is saying that this alleged mass attack, summoned as if by hidden signal, was actually planned by anyone. As the Washington Post reports, "Authorities say [...] that the assaults were not organized but occurred spontaneously."
Okay, how on Earth are we supposed to make sense of this? We know from other police reports that less that 1% of crimes committed by migrants in Germany in 2015 were of a sexual nature, and that the total number of sexual assaults committed by migrants in that entire year was 1,688. Furthermore, as Deutsche-Welle points out, the rate of these crimes plateaued in the second half of 2015, when the largest numbers of refugees were beginning to arrive in Germany. The total number of sexual offenses in Germany for the most recently reported year (2014) was 47,000. This means that migrants and refugees committed only 3.6 percent of the national total of these crimes last year. While this is still slightly disproportionate to their share of the national population (2%), the Independent notes that this can mostly be accounted for, not by muddled stigmas related to "culture" or a lack of "integration," but by the fact that a far greater proportion of refugees are adult men -- who are, in every society and culture, far more likely to commit sexual assaults than are women or children.
Let me repeat, then, that in the entire year of 2015, individuals who also happen to be migrants or refugees committed no more than 1,688 sexual assaults in all of Germany. And we are being asked to believe, in effect, that individuals from these same groups committed roughly three quarters of this number of assaults in a single night last December, and that they did it without motivation, without coordination, "spontaneously," in cities all across the country. One feels one is missing something.
To be sure, there is video evidence of many of these assaults, which has enabled police to make positive identifications of 120 suspects and to initiate a handful of prosecutions. But were they as widespread as these later allegations suggest? Were some of them perhaps committed by drunken white assailants who, in the dark of night and in Germany's current overheated atmosphere, were later recalled as being of "Middle Eastern or North African" appearance (a huge category, whose members I could not easily distinguish in a crowd from white German citizens)? Were there individual acts of robbery or groping that -- while awful for those who had to experience them -- might have taken place in any crowd of drunken revelers, and which were only reported later on as a media narrative started to emerge in which the experience could be situated? Were particular encounters with criminal or simply loutish behavior recast in memory as another instance of the larger trope that was beginning to take shape in the media -- that of the "sex-mob," the "twenty or thirty men" of "Middle Eastern or North African appearance"? How trustworthy is anyone's memory about something that happened months ago, and about which many are only now filing reports?
Why did the Cologne police not report immediately that they were witnessing such an unprecedented concentration of grotesque behavior-- nine-month's-worth of sexual assaults on a single occasion? As the BBC reported back in January: "There was the inexplicably bland initial police report describing the evening in Cologne as a 'relaxed atmosphere. Celebrations largely peaceful.' It was on social media that news of the assaults first seeped out." But was that report really "inexplicable"? Or are we just not looking at the right explanation?
German tabloids, right-wing networks, and social media have of course rushed in to supply their own explanation. They quickly began to account for the police's relative silence on the night in question by alleging a "cover-up" on the part of German politicians and law enforcement -- a coordinated effort first to deny that the assaults had ever taken place, and then, when this effort failed, to claim that asylum seekers and migrants had not been involved.
The BBC goes along for the ride, telling us: "The police certainly knew the reality of who had been on the streets. On the night some young men had shown police their asylum documents. An internal police report describes a man telling the police: 'I am Syrian. You have to treat me kindly. Mrs Merkel invited me'."
Wait a minute. Who said that? What police report? It is a frankly incredible quote on the face of it. How many refugees or migrants paid that much attention to German politics on their journey over, let alone undertook the perilous journey out of a sense that they had been "invited" by a particular German chancellor, rather than that they were fleeing for their lives? Believe it or not, people don't usually arrive in a country after traveling by foot across the entire stretch of the Balkans -- or nearly drowning in a sea vessel or sacrificing their life savings or going into debt to loan sharks in order to board a smuggler's boat or truck -- with a spoiled child's sense of entitlement. This quote sounds not at all like something a refugee would say, and a great deal like how a right-winger in Germany's current overheated political atmosphere would assume that refugees see the world.
But let's check it out. Where, then, does the quote actually come from? The BBC does not provide a link, and to actually track down this line's origin is to fall down a rabbit hole of Europe's less creditable media. It would seem that the quote has become a favorite one (not surprisingly) among right-wing columnists and bloggers across the continent.
Its German original can be traced after some effort, however, to a single unnamed police source whose account was first printed in Bild, in an article that marked the beginning of the Köln hype. Who this "police commander" was, we may never know. Refugees in the media are not -- like defendants in a courtroom -- protected from anonymous speculations by the requirement that their accusers be willing to testify against them face to face.
As to what kind of news outlet this Bild is, by the way, one can refer to the opening paragraphs of the magazine's Wikipedia page for an enlightening perspective: "Bild has been described as 'notorious for its mix of gossip, inflammatory language, and sensationalism' and as having a huge influence on German politicians," we are told. "[...] Der Spiegel wrote in 2006 that Bild 'flies just under the nonsense threshold of American and British tabloids ... For the German desperate, it is a daily dose of high-resolution soft porn'."
For those who are familiar with Heinrich Böll's classic novel about right-wing media sensationalism, The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum, meanwhile, it may be helpful to know that Bild was the tabloid Böll chiefly had in mind as a target for his satire.
The headline of Bild's Köln article that contains the line in question gives one a further sense of its general tenor. There it is, in enormous letters:
["Sex-Mob: The Secret Police Report!"]
The alleged quote about Frau Merkel, meanwhile, does not appear in the narrative portion of the "secret police report," but in a numbered list of other so-called "events/incidents." It is not attributed to anyone. There is no context given for the quote. We are not even told if it was said by a suspect, or merely by a Syrian bystander. All we see is this, offered in total isolation:
2. "Ich bin Syrer, ihr müsst mich freundlich behandeln! Frau Merkel hat mich eingeladen." ["I am Syrian, you must treat me kindly. Mrs. Merkel has invited me."]The unnamed police commander does not even tell us whether he had heard this line himself, or if one of his officers relayed it to him, or anything else about where it supposedly came from. It seems more than possible that no one actually said it, or if they did, that it was massively taken out of context. Perhaps, if it was said, it was yelled in desperation by an asylum seeker who was being manhandled or thrown to the ground, perhaps one who was not involved in the harassment (in other words, someone who had good reason to feel he was not being treated in a properly freundlich fashion).
Yet this line of such dubious provenance has entered the official narrative in media across the West of what happened that night in Cologne, repeated in such reputable outlets as the BBC.
As with other panics, individual stories that are really quite distinctive have been assimilated to the core emerging narrative, and details are ignored. Deutsche-Welle provides an account of the evolution of one such story. A police report about an incident at a shopping mall in Kiel described a group of "20 to 30 people with a migrant background" who had surrounded three German teenage girls, while two of them took photos and videos of the girls on their phones and otherwise harassed them. Here, then, was another "Sex-Mob" in action, with Bild leaping in with its usual headlines. The UK tabloid Express summarized events as follows: "Mob of 30 migrants chase girls through shopping centre before clashing with police."
The trouble is that none of that turned out to be true, or at least not verifiable. Police eventually admitted that the "20 to 30 people" were made up of bystanders and onlookers, and were not involved in the harassment itself. So no "sex-mob" after all. Later on, police assured reporters that they had found photos of the victims on the suspects' phones, confirming that the harassment had taken place. But then it was revealed that police had actually mistaken two photos among the thousands of Facebook profiles, contacts, and other images that were stored on the suspect's phones -- they were actually of entirely different women. Surely something must have happened, though, to cause a crowd of bystanders to congregate in that way? Maybe, but whatever it was we will never know. While prosecutions are proceeding against two young men alleged to be involved in the incident, the counts against them no longer include anything about harassment; now they are related to "resisting arrest" -- i.e., to something that occurred only after they were identified as "suspects" -- but of what are they now suspected?
How many other stories have been dashed off with similar recklessness? How many "sex-mobs" were actually just made up of "curious bystanders and onlookers"? An article from the Telegraph last January wraps up on an increasingly ominous note:
"Reports of similar sexual assaults on women during New Year’s Eve celebrations are emerging across northern Europe. In Finland, three asylum-seekers have been arrested over incidents in the capital, Helsinki. Police said they had received information that groups of asylum-seekers planned to harass women in the city. 'This is a completely new phenomenon in Helsinki,' lkka Koskimaki, the deputy police chief, said. In Sweden, 15 women reported being sexually assaulted in the city of Kalmar on New Year’s Eve. Two asylum-seekers have been arrested in connection with the assaults. In Switzerland, police in Zurich said six women reported being sexually assaulted and robbed in cases 'a little similar' to those in Germany. There have been reports of similar attacks in cities across Germany and in neighbouring Austria."The implication is clear: it's spreading! But is it the crime that's spreading, or the panic? Is there actually a greater number of incidents than before, or are they just being assimilated to a new narrative?
Three people have been "arrested over incidents" in Helsinki, we are told. What kinds of incidents? Sexual assaults? If so, are three instances of sexual assault really "a completely new phenomenon in Helsinki"? Six women robbed and sexually assaulted in Zurich, in cases "'a little similar' to those in Germany." Similar how? How prevalent is robbery and sexual assault in Zurich usually? It's probably not especially widespread, but is six an atypically high number? And over how long a period did these six incidents allegedly take place? How similar is "a little similar"?
German feminists have estimated, using police statistics, that 20 or more incidents of rape or sexual assault occur in that country each day, with the vast majority of them not having anything to do with migrants. Is it fair to assimilate every crime committed by an individual migrant to this narrative of the "Sex-Mob," while leaving these far more common occurrences unacknowledged?
The notion that some -- and perhaps many -- migrants committed sexual assaults in crowded settings on New Years Eve does not stretch credibility. But at the heart of the coverage of this story has been the insinuation that they were the only ones who did (that night at least, and maybe always). Perhaps it is most noticeable in that Telegraph piece, but it shows up elsewhere as well -- the notion that Europe never has sexual violence of its own, never even knew about it, until those refugees showed up -- that they have introduced "a completely new phenomenon" into pristine Europe. This "outraged innocence" motif is on particularly full display in the UK's Daily Mail, with all its queasy note of masculine protectiveness and an unmistakably leering quality as it dwells on the "horror" that unfolded that night (it makes the questionable journalistic choice, for instance, of including two large-scale images of alleged teenage victims).
The reality that such narratives play on is that sexual violence is actually far more prevalent than we like to think, and massively underreported. This is true, however, across all social and national groups; and where sexual violence does occur -- including child abuse, rape, assault and harassment --- it most often takes place within families and kin groups, or at least among people who already know each other. This is true in Germany as in other societies.
Yet, as Richard Beck notes in his recent book on the Satanic ritual abuse panic of the 1980s, We Believe the Children, time and again our society is drawn to narratives about sexual violence that portray it as happening only outside of the family, or outside of our other treasured institutions -- as something that is committed only by strangers, by lone men, by sexual non-conformists and racial others. The reality that abuse is just as likely if not more so to occur among sexually normative people in familial settings is a profoundly unsettling idea that we have never quite been able to own up to.
Let us look at one of the very few cases from the Köln attacks that has actually made it to trial. The outrage engines across Europe have already been set into furious motion by the news that "Hussein A," the perpetrator in this case, was given a suspended one-year prison sentence by the German court system for his role in an assault. This was not seen as nearly stern enough a punishment, at least not by Bild (which has started in on the predictable character assassination of the guilty). What is it, though, that this 21 year old boy was actually convicted of doing? According to the Telegraph, "He was found guilty of trying to kiss a woman and licking her face."
That's cruel and frightening behavior, to be sure. But is it something for which a 21-year-old without a fully developed prefrontal cortex on his shoulders should go to jail? Do we actually think he should have been given more than a one-year suspended sentence for this? One wonders if the right-wing editorial slant on this question would be the same if the boy hadn't been a Muslim immigrant -- if he had been a white college student, say.
Note as well the tone of mock-innocence in all this coverage. Trying to forcibly kiss a woman? Only a refugee would do something like that! We are asked to pretend not to know that this is something that happens constantly, at parties the world over, wherever drunken boys and men gather. This is not in the least to defend it. It is to point out that Hussein A may not have done anything that wasn't woefully common at Sylverternacht occasions already, that isn't already all too prevalent in our societies as a whole.
It's thus hard not to detect in the coverage a desire to displace onto Hussein and the other Köln suspects anxieties about what we ourselves might be guilty or capable of. That's not us, that's them! Maybe they do things like that -- us? Never.
Richard Beck argues that moral panics, when they occur, usually spring from some genuine reservoir of anxiety, often mixed with guilt. In the case of the Satanic ritual abuse and day care abuse panics of the 1980s, the guilt and anxieties were related to the post-60s backlash of the era -- to concerns that ours had become a "narcissistic" society, and that the family in particular was imperiled by the social changes of the previous two decades. Parents felt guilty about entrusting their children to strangers for the day while they both worked, and the stories of abusive day care employees operating massive sex rings and the like provided a convenient outlet for displacing these feelings onto a scapegoat.
It is not hard to imagine what might be the deeper sources of widespread feelings of guilt in Germany, then -- particularly where the subjects of racism and refugees are concerned. What a relief it would be, we can imagine, to discover that these migrants weren't actually refugees or victims at all -- that they were in fact sexual deviants, and ones with a sense of entitlement to boot, who believed that Frau Merkel "invited them" and therefore that everyone else had to be nice. What a fine outlet that would be for repressed tensions. What a lovely way for Germans -- and Westerners in general-- to feel innocent again.
There are always, perhaps, any number of potential moral panics simmering in the background, finding their voice on far-right websites and the pages of schlocky tabloids. Panics about immigrants, panics about Muslims, panics about Catholic priests or feminists or Planned Parenthood. What distinguishes a genuine mass panic from this garden variety, however, is that it seeps out of its right-wing containers and into the rest of the media. Suddenly, bizarre rumors from Bild and other tabloids are appearing in the BBC.
This is likewise what strikes us most about the Satanic mass panic of the '80s -- not that Evangelicals had fantasies about devil worship and witchcraft in America's preschools -- but that, for a time at least, the rest of the media seemed to believe this was actually happening as well. For this to happen, Beck implies, two quite different ideological streams had to come together in a particularly heady fashion. The first was the growing Reagan-era backlash against feminism, the counterculture, and other forces that were believed to be undermining the family and traditional structures of authority. The second, however, was a strain of second-wave feminism that insisted that the only solution to the historic devaluing and dismissal of sexual assault and rape claims was to insist that all narratives of abuse were true (even those which, like the ones used in ritual abuse cases, later turned out to have been obtained through coercive techniques, or through "repressed memories" confabulated with the aid of therapists). Beck notes that there was also another, quite different strand of feminism, whose members were among the first of any writers to question the reality of the ritual abuse allegations (he singles out Ellen Willis and her reporters at the Village Voice for particular praise in this respect). Yet the implication of his argument is that the ritual abuse panic likely would not have got as far as it did -- would probably have been written off by most educated opinion as the paranoia it was-- if it had not received powerful backing from a group of social workers and psychiatrists with feminist leanings, who made poor use of their professional credibility and authority by turning "We Believe the Children" into a categorical mantra of their approach.
And so one wonders: what might be the potency of a similar misalliance today? It is not surprising, after all, that the German right-wing media would want to recycle rumors that cast refugees in a guilty and ignominious light. In the absence of hard evidence, however, such accounts would mostly be written off by other outlets as paranoia or race-baiting. Suppose, however, that these stories were joined to another powerful narrative that had obtained enormous purchase and credibility on the Left -- in this case, the narrative that sexual assault allegations must always be believed, that to question them is to try to minimize the vileness of sexual assault and perhaps to be complicit in such violence oneself. Who then would want to be seen to question the veracity of the reports? Who would be left to doubt the rumors? If a mass panic were to take place, it could hardly ask for a more conducive circumstance in which to take root.
I'm not saying this is what happened that night in Köln, or all that happened. But it poses some questions for me that no one seems able to answer. And the fact that the questions may, by their nature, be unanswerable, and the allegations at once both unprovable and non-falsifiable, suggests that there may be a great many more of them before this is done.