Alicia and I became close friends in the second half of my sophomore year. A theater major from Madrid, Alicia was brilliant, talented, worldly, and sophisticated. I felt more intelligent just for being around her and relished the hours we spent together lost in conversation in her room in Lourdes Hall.
Our discussions covered everything from politics to culture to our shared frustrations with some of our more puerile classmates, but there was one conversation that stands out in my mind 28 years later.
One night, Alicia recounted seeing her boyfriend, a civil guard, off in Madrid. Moments later a car bomb detonated near his bus, instantly killing him and 11 of his fellow cadets.. Two years after the attack, she made no effort to disguise her contempt for the Basque terrorists who shredded his body.
Alicia was the first person I’d met who had an intimate understanding of terrorism and its effects, but her experience was one shared by thousands across Europe in the 1970s through the mid 90s. The Irish Republican Army, Euskadi Ta Askatasuna, the Red Brigades, Black September, the Red Army, and dozens of other groups carried out thousands of bombings, kidnappings, and shootings across Europe during those years. Some of the attacks, such as Black September’s murder of 11 Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics in 1972, the hijacking of the Achille Lauro in 1985, and the 1986 Berlin discotheque bombing garnered varying degrees of attention in the United States, but we remained generally unaware of the extent to which people in London, Dublin, Madrid, and Berlin dreaded the sound of the next explosion.
That changed when 1988 saw the largest number of post-war deaths tied to terrorism. Four hundred and forty people died that year; 270 died in the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 alone. It was the deadliest attack on U.S. civilians for nearly 13 years, and remains the deadliest act of terrorism on European soil. Alicia’s story, shared in a dim dorm room in the spring of 1988, took on a new resonance 8 months later when I had my own awakening regarding the harsh realities of international terrorism.
Though Spain, Norway, and England would suffer significant bombings and shootings involving foreign and domestic terrorists (Madrid in 2004, London in 2005, Oslo in 2011), attacks in Europe fell precipitously in the mid 90s and remained comparatively low until 2015.
In turn, the bombing of Pan Am 103 was a harbinger of things to come for the United States. The World Trade Center bombing in 1993, the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, and the attacks on September 11, 2001 made us all-t0o-familiar with the horrors of mass terrorism, both foreign and domestic.
Yet memory, even communal memory, is an amazingly fleeting thing. Almost 15 years ago, my students and I were among the tens of millions watching the broadcast of the September 11 attacks. Five years ago, one of my students recounted the day her father was among the first to arrive at the scene at the Flight 93 crash site in Shanksville. This semester, the majority of my first-year college students have little recollection of that day. Perhaps this explains the fear I witnessed this past fall when, in the aftermath of the San Bernardino attacks, several of my students told me that they would avoid Light Up Night and the New Year’s Eve festivities. For them, San Bernardino was their Pan Am 103, their 7/7, their 9/11, just as the attacks in Paris and Brussels will act as a young generation of Europeans’ Bologna, Munich, and Enniskillen. In the past year, millions of U.S. and European citizens has become painfully reacquainted with terrorism.
With each attack comes the inevitable and necessary discussion about causes, prevention, retaliation, and healing. Some will advocate the most draconian of measures; others will downplay the threats. One thing is certain—terrorists murdered 148 people in Europe last year, making 2015 the deadliest year in over a decade, and 2016 has already seen dozens killed. With so many recent attacks, it’s easy for us, even those of us with memories of the violence of the 1970s, 80s, and 90s, to forget that these attacks are shocking to us not only for their violence, but also for their infrequency in recent years. ISIS and its fellow travelers are different than the separatists and leftists who terrorized Europe for nearly 25 years, and we’ve changed, too. Social media and on-demand newscasts project images of suffering in real time, often leaving us with little time for reflection or perspective. Politicians on both sides of the Atlantic feed into the xenophobic sentiments of many citizens. We are safer in many respects than we were in the 1980s, yet we live in a state of constant fear—which is the terrorists’ ultimate goal.
For an analysis of terrorist attacks in Europe from 1970-2015, I suggest the following article: Terror Attacks in Western Europe From 1970 to Now, which was published shortly after the attacks in Paris.