What We Can Learn From Europe’s Response to Terror

The best counterterrorism measures don’t erect barriers, they bring cities together


One week ago today, Uzbek national Sayfullo Saipov drove a van through the two-lane West Side Highway bike path, killing eight people and injuring twelve others. It was the latest in a series of low-tech attacks with vehicles that have ramped up in the wake of the Islamic State’s recent decline: About 130 people have been killed in vehicle-ramming attacks in Germany, Sweden, Spain, Britain, and France. Vans or cars are easier to obtain than the chemicals to make bombs, and require fewer skills to operate, making them particularly hard to defend against, experts say.

While President Donald Trump called Saipov an “animal,” and promised to get rid of the Diversity Visa Lottery Program that allowed Saipov to enter the United States, his European counterparts have mostly called for unity in the wake of similar attacks. After 13 people were killed by a van on Las Ramblas boulevard in Barcelona, Spain, in August, Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy joined hundreds of thousands of people marching for peace, and against islamophobia. In Nice, France, where 84 people were killed in July 2016 by a 19-ton truck, which zigzagged through the crowds celebrating Bastille Day, a national holiday, leaders lauded #PortesOuvertesNice (“OpenDoorsNice”), a social media campaign that offered shelter to stranded passersby.

At the same time, European leaders have been quick to install barriers, such as bollards — vertical posts that prevent vehicles from entering — as their go-to measure to protect against vehicle-ramming attacks in Nice, Madrid, and London. But, as their numbers increase — changing the landscape and freedom of movement of cities, prompting artists in Europe to stage bollard protests and encourage rejecting what they say is a culture of fear — experts have urged adopting more measured ways of coping with urban terrorism.

New York has already seen its first infrastructure response to last week’s attack. On Thursday, the city began installing barriers at 57 intersections along the West Side bike path, where they will prevent any cars from entering. “These concrete barriers are a short-term solution that will better protect bikers, walkers, runners, and all New Yorkers — and DOT is moving forward expeditiously to develop a permanent solution that will enhance security while allowing emergency vehicles to do their jobs,” Cathy Calhoun, acting commissioner and chief of staff of the New York State Department of Transportation (DOT), said in an emailed statement Friday.

The new barriers are not without controversy. After a car jumped the sidewalk and mowed over pedestrians at Times Square in May, killing one woman, city officials placed more barriers at strategic points across the city — Times Square, Herald Square — to protect against vehicle-ramming attacks. “They’re ugly,” a NYPD counterterrorism officer posted at Herald Square told me last Wednesday, looking at the five 4,000-pound concrete blocks covered in plain blue mats and yellow lettering. But, he added, “You’ll see more of them.”

Herald Square is very much what terrorism experts call a “soft target”: tourists sitting at the red tables on yellow chairs, taking a break from shopping, checking their phones in the glow of storefront lighting. But in the longer term, says Jon Coaffee, visiting professor of urban geography at New York University’s Center for Urban Science and Progress, “it is imperative that we begin to think beyond bollards and embrace effective urban designs that are less obtrusive, and which have other benefits to the public realm — flower pots, benches, etc. — but which still retain hostile vehicle mitigation functionality.”

Other cities have already warned of how too many bollards could harm the social fabric of a city. In Melbourne, Australia, where six people were killed by a driver in January, as well as in Milan and Edinburgh, Scotland, artists have rallied at #boll-art protests, covering the blocks in bright fabrics, graffiti, or paint, to draw attention to this risk. At Westminster Bridge in London, where five people were killed in a van attack in June, security railings or fences were placed. Madrid chose to install flower pots. (Barcelona decided to use barriers only during Christmas and other high-risk times.) In Copenhagen, Denmark, authorities discussed planting trees instead of cement barriers. At the Promenade des Anglais, the site of the truck attack in Nice, officials placed 190 bollards between 0.8 miles of steel cables in fortified cement. Parisians opted for a more esthetically pleasing solution: At the Eiffel Tower, where visitors used to roam freely, a bullet-proof glass wall will be built.

“[Possible targets] cannot all be defended without making the city look as if it is under siege through the ubiquitous use of barrier security and high-visibility policing,” Coaffee says.

What renders vehicle attacks more difficult to protect against can also make their victims harder to mourn publicly. Whereas the September 11, 2001, attack changed the landscape of the city, vehicle attacks lack a similar sense of place, says Katherine Brown, a counterterrorism expert at the University of Birmingham.

“These are quite mundane sites — they’re bridges, sidewalks, they’re the everyday,” Brown says. “So to recognize when those places became less than everyday, when they became traumatic places, is really important.”

At London’s Westminster Bridge, people left sticky notes with messages of support on an improvised memorial wall after someone left a box with Post-it notes and pens for passersby to use. In Barcelona, arrangements of flowers, drawings, and candles grew in concentric circles on Las Ramblas. In New York last week, people adorned a “ghost bike” with bouquets of white carnations and gypsophila, and a single red rose. Failing urban commemoration, one’s own body can mark healing: After attacks in Paris and Manchester, England, tattoos of bees — Manchester’s symbol — and the phrase “Fluctuat nec mergitur” (“Shaken but not sunk”) — Paris’s Latin motto — became popular.

On Wednesday, twelve bouquets, a hat, and an envelope were left at a makeshift memorial on the West Side Highway. A Belgian flag was attached to a steel barrier. A park officer told me she had comforted the family of a 31-year-old Belgian woman, Ann-Laure Decadt, who was among the eight victims killed in the attack last week. The officer told me she held Decadt’s mother in one arm, her sister in the other, as Decadt was lifted into an ambulance. “Please don’t tell me that my baby is gone!” her mother said. Her sister screamed: “Please tell me she is going to be all right!” The officer also told me that Decadt’s mother, who lives in the small Belgian town of Staden, and was on vacation in New York, asked her: “Why did we come here?”

In Western Europe, the recent attacks have also led to crackdowns on civil liberties. Last week, two years after the attack by gunmen and suicide bombers on multiple targets in Paris killed 130 people, the French government finally ended its state of emergency, which had given security officials powers previously available only to their American counterparts, such as wiretapping and wider search and raid powers. But it replaced the emergency rule with a new law human rights advocates say is “abusive,” allowing officials to comb areas within a large perimeter without a judge’s order, making it easier to place individuals under house arrest and to close mosques suspected of inciting violence, and enshrining other provisions of the emergency state into law.

Meanwhile, Brussels, the European Union capital, voted in February to deport foreign residents on the sole suspicion of terrorist activity, without the involvement of a judge. And the EU itself, capitalizing on fears that jihadists could return amid the flows of refugees entering the EU through Greece, last year forged a deal that discouraged people from taking that route, leaving nearly 3 million people — many from war zones in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan — stuck in Turkey, according to rights groups, with nowhere else to go.

The United States now faces similar choices, with Trump threatening the diversity visa program — which since 1995 has granted about 50,000 visas a year to applicants from countries that are underrepresented in the U.S.’s immigration mix — and continuing to press for a ban on immigrants from Muslim nations. In the U.S., as in the EU, such measures — which are discriminatory, and, legal experts say, unlawful — reflect a wider choice between quelling fear and maintaining an open, democratic society in the face of urban terrorism.

“I don’t think you can stop these attacks,” says Brown, the counterterrorism expert at the University of Birmingham. “The cost of trying to prevent every single attack isn’t worth it, because the cost is to our way of life.” On Wednesday, New Yorkers went out to celebrate Halloween, drawing the usual huge crowds, and on Sunday, more than 50,000 people ran the marathon.

“Cities have to live,” Brown adds, noting that the New Yorker attitude of carrying on regardless can provide a sense of security for visitors as well. It might not be as obvious a counterterrorism measure as a concrete barrier, she says, “but it’s actually those things that give people resilience — it’s that coming together, activities that create a sense of shared belonging, shared ownership, and a shared city.”