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OpinionColumnistsCathy Young

Grim year ends on suitably dark note in Berlin

French police officers patrol in the Champs-Elysee Christmas

French police officers patrol in the Champs-Elysee Christmas market in Paris, Tuesday, Dec. 20, 2016, the day after a truck ran into a crowded Christmas market killing a number of people Monday evening in Berlin, Germany. Credit: AP

A year of grim spectacle is ending on a suitably dark note: the horrific truck attack on a Berlin Christmas market, which killed 12 people and left dozens injured. The apparent perpetrator has been killed in a shootout in Italy.

Any attack directed at civilians is vile, all the more so when it targets festivities that are meant as a celebration of peace and joy — and that are likely to draw large numbers of children. This attack also had a personal resonance for me: A year ago, my mother and I stayed at a Berlin hotel just a few blocks away from the site where it happened. We visited that Christmas market more than once. If not for a family emergency, we might have been there again this year.

The suspect, 24-year-old Tunisian Anis Amri, arrived in Germany as part of the controversial refugee settlement program — unfortunately, an unsurprising fact. The attack will undoubtedly intensify criticism of the refugee policy a year after the scandal around mass sexual assaults on New Year’s Eve, mostly by Middle Eastern migrants, in Cologne. The tide of anti-migrant sentiment that has been strengthening right-wing populism all over Europe — and has resonated in the United States with Donald Trump’s election victory — is likely to get another boost, though whether it will sweep away German Chancellor Angela Merkel remains to be seen.

If there is something particularly twisted in a pre-holiday attack on a Christmas market, there is also a particularly bitter irony about a Christmas surge of hostility toward refugees fleeing violent chaos in their lands. Charity, after all, is an essential part of the Christmas spirit. The Christmas story itself includes the pregnant Mary and her husband being turned away from an inn — and, a short while later, fleeing to Egypt with their baby as refugees from King Herod’s reign of terror.

And yet, in the real world, a country’s charity toward needy strangers must be balanced against the priorities of safety for its own men, women and children. The anti-refugee language coming from right-wing populist movements is often hateful and quite literally dehumanizing (including Trump’s comparison of dangerous migrants to snakes waiting to bite their rescuers). But that does not negate the real security issue posed by the influx of vast numbers of migrants from countries with high levels of Islamist terrorism. One need not lapse into paranoid rhetoric that portrays refugee resettlement as a mass jihadist invasion to see that even a small percentage of jihadists among refugees can pose a serious risk. Europeans who now have to walk past concrete barriers to get to their Christmas markets understand this all too well.

Better vetting can help; in Amri’s case, part of the problem was the staggering fecklessness of German authorities which allowed him to walk the streets freely despite rejecting his asylum application because of his criminal background and known terror connections, after his native Tunisia declined to take him back.

But even with vetting, the dilemma will remain, and it may have no good answers. In this season, “God bless us, everyone” seems less a message of joy than a cry in the dark.

Cathy Young is a regular contributor to Reason magazine and Real Clear Politics.