There are the days when I’m pessimistic about the future. The drivers of populism are many, and they are deep. Once populists are in power, they have proven adept at inciting anger and hatred, at exploiting one crisis and producing the next, and at staying surprisingly popular amid all the rancor. Perhaps we are witnessing the beginning of the end of liberal democracy, and all our valiant efforts to resist are bound to fail.
Then there are the days when I’m optimistic about the future. The forces of populism have not yet seduced a majority of the population, I remind myself. Once people see their freedoms curtailed and their interests ignored, they will resist. If we manage to shake off the virus that is now rapidly spreading from land to land, we may wind up inoculated against future populists.
And then there are the days when I’m too overwhelmed to feel optimism or pessimism, to feel courage or dejection. On those days, vertigo takes hold. I stare at some new piece of phantasmagoric darkness unfolding around me, uncomprehending yet mesmerized that the world can spin out of control even faster than I had thought possible until a few hours before. This is how I am feeling today.
Monday began with the news that a Turkish policeman had gunned down the Russian ambassador at a gallery opening in the heart of Ankara, apparently to protest the cynical destruction of Aleppo, Syria. Thankfully, Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan have improved their hostile relationship over the course of the past year, which makes it less likely that Russia will blame the Turkish government for the ambassador’s death. And yet the (admittedly imperfect) parallels to 1914, when the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand at the hands of a Yugoslav nationalist precipitated World War I, were unnerving . The need for de-escalation was clear, which quickly gave rise to dark jokes about keeping the escalator-in-chief, Donald Trump, off Twitter for as long as possible.
The jokes hit home. How comforting it has been, over these past eight years, to know that the inhabitant of the White House is a man of great decency and extraordinary composure, someone who can be counted upon to weigh his steps and their consequences with care and intelligence. And how terrifying it is to think that, a month from today, the inhabitant of the White House will be a man who acts rashly and impulsively, with a self-assurance borne of ignorance and a braggadocio that expresses itself in an incessant form of self-assertion that pays little heed to its own consequences.
As the morning turned into the afternoon, that extra complication, that additional source of tension in the world was, thanks to the black magic to which we have become accustomed over the course of this bleak year, starting to feel normal. I was meeting with potential allies at a foundation, strategizing about how to resist the attacks on liberal democracy that may come our way over the next four years here in the United States. Heartened by a productive conversation, I was feeling a little more optimistic that we Davids may yet find a way to beat Goliath. The feeling of vertigo was dissipating. Then a friend texted me: “Did you see the terrible news coming out of Germany?” she asked.
No, I had not yet seen the news. But—such are the times we live in—I instantly knew what such a text must portend. The glaring headlines in the German press confirmed my fears. A van of death, emulating the senseless suffering its brethren had inflicted on a beach in Nice five short months ago, had barreled into a crowded Christmas market in the center of Berlin. The death toll was as yet unknown, and so was the identity of the perpetrator. But my feeling of vertigo, my compulsion to stare at the unfolding chaos all around me, was back in an instant. I could not help but marvel at this feat of virtuosity, at the way in which an invisible conductor had increased the tempo with which the world is spiraling out of control by yet another notch.
I know the place of horror all too well. It is a 15-minute stroll from my mother’s apartment. It is where the closest branch of my German bank is located. It is where I met a friend for lunch just about two months ago. These mundane details shouldn’t matter. I have associations with the place where they died, and so the senseless slaughter of 12 innocents stops me in my tracks. I have no associations with Aleppo, and so the senseless slaughter of thousands upon thousands of innocents over these last months impressed themselves upon my conscience in a much more abstract way.
We live in a time at which one tragedy begets another. The senseless slaughter in Aleppo helped to inspire a dangerous death in Ankara. And the murder at Berlin’s Christmas market is very likely to incite hatred against innocent immigrants and refugees. It will also give a big boost to the far-right Alternative for Germany, which has, according to recent polls, in any case been on course to become the country’s third biggest party at next year’s elections. And so the different horrors of our age form an unholy alliance: Every terrorist attack increases the power of the populists. As their power grows and minority groups are openly discriminated against, more immigrants become susceptible to the temptations of martyrdom.
I don’t know what consequences the violence in Berlin or Ankara will have. I don’t know whether we will eventually manage to contain the twin waves of populism and terrorism. I don’t know whether it is wiser to be optimistic or pessimistic. None of us do.
What I do know—with a clarity that grows by the day and is only thrown into relief by the violent chaos all about us—is that there are things worth defending. I have big, abstract words for some of those things. But when it comes right down to it, simple words and images will do just as well. And, even for this Jew with no religious bone in his body, it is difficult to think of an image that evokes the things worth defending more beautifully than a warm Christmas market beckoning all comers—locals and tourists, Christians, Muslims, and atheists—to spend an hour or two strolling among brightly lit stalls and drinking hot tea or mulled wine with a newfound friend.