Berlin woke up in a thick fog on Dec. 20, the day after the driver of a truck plowed into a crowded Christmas market in the city center, killing at least 12 people, in an apparent terrorist attack later claimed by the Islamic State. The fog felt like frozen steam on my face as I headed to a park known as Tempelhofer Feld for a morning jog. I crossed Columbiadamm, a large road just north of the park, where many truck drivers, mostly Polish or Turkish, stop to rest for the night or part of the day. As I was running in the semi-deserted park, everything looked and felt like any other winter morning.
Later, I learned that German police had been to Tempelhofer Feld earlier in the morning. The park, an airfield until 2008, is most famous for having facilitated the Berlin Airlift in 1948-1949. While the airfield has since been turned into a recreational space, the former airport's hangars have been used since September 2015 as a makeshift refugee camp to help accommodate the flood of asylum seekers pouring into Germany over the past two years. The police had arrived to conduct interviews shortly after the arrest of a 23-year-old Pakistani asylum seeker, considered the primary suspect in the Christmas market attack. (The police later expressed doubts about his alleged role and released him.) The young man had entered Germany through the so-called Balkan route at the end of 2015.
If it is confirmed that someone who entered the country in search of asylum carried out the attack in the heart of the German capital, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and her "refugees welcome" policy could be punished by public opinion. Parliamentary elections are scheduled for the latter half of 2017, and the anti-immigrant, anti-establishment Alternative for Germany (AfD) party is already strengthening, polling at around 12-13 percent. AfD leader Frauke Petry wasted no time in claiming that the German government and its refugee policy are responsible for the attack. Widespread fear and insecurity could diminish public support for Merkel's Christian Democratic Union.
Yet such anxieties were not immediately perceptible in the Berlin streets where I walked. There was a heavy police presence, but this has been the case for months already, if not years. In the neighborhoods of Kreuzberg and Neukoelln, the busy streets are full of Turkish and Arab shops. The trendiness of Syrian food in the local culinary scene is a testament to how migrants have largely been embraced, and Syrian refugees are viewed by most not as threats but as families. It did not seem any different today. This part of the city, though, is exceedingly international and left-wing, with an unusually high concentration of Green Party, Left Party and Social Democratic Party voters.
Overall in Berlin, there is a palpable sense of sadness about the violence, but not surprise. Europe was shocked when 20 people were killed during the Charlie Hebdo terrorist attacks in January 2015 and horrified when another attack in Paris in November left 137 dead. This year, a suicide bomber killed 35 people in Belgium in March and, in July, another truck driver mowed into a crowd in Nice, killing 86. Germany, too, was hit twice in July with attacks linked to terrorism, though in both cases only the perpetrator was killed. Sadly, with each attack, Europeans become more used to the violence.
Berlin is no exception. The attack was almost expected, as if it was just a matter of time. Christmas markets had already been identified as potential targets. In the German capital, it feels like the tragedy is just a confirmation of what we knew already. Christmas markets may close, but violence against soft targets can and will likely continue.
Letter From Berlin: Sadness, Not Shock, After Holiday Attack