London is ablaze. Violence has spread to Bristol, Birmingham, Manchester and Liverpool as well. For four days, the streets have been filled with hooded and masked youth looting, burning and taunting police. The Prime Minister of Great Britain has cut short his trip abroad and called Parliament back from recess. Sixteen thousand policemen have been deployed on the streets of London in an attempt to gain control of the crisis.
And, for Europe, this is likely only the beginning.
We have gotten used, in recent years, to thinking of terrorism and political violence as the exclusive province of Islamists. We have forgotten that long before Al Qaida, long before 9/11 and long before what we now call the "war on terror" the most lethal terrorist organizations on the planet were European and violence directed against "the system" in Europe was widespread.
They may not have had the addiction to mass casualty attacks that has been the hallmark of Islamic terrorism, but groups like the Red Brigades, the Red Army Faction and Revolutionary Organization 17 November exhibited a ferocity and a discipline that made them extremely dangerous adversaries. For decades they staged assassinations, robbed banks, bombed key buildings and kidnapped politicians, jurists and military officers. The last of them, 17 November, was not finally put out of business until 2002.
These European terrorist groups were born of a much larger body of leftists and anarchists who opposed capitalism, what they saw as American "imperialism" and, in many ways, the whole structure of Western society. Their ideology was often confused and contradictory, but they agreed on one thing. They wanted to burn down the existing system and start anew.
This broad based leftist movement lost considerable steam in the aftermath of the Cold War. It did not, however, ever fade away entirely. In recent years ,as economies have sputtered and European nations have begun to grapple with reining in their welfare states, European leftists and anarchists have begun to gather strength again.
In 2008 hooded and masked youths in France battled police for control of neighborhoods near Paris for weeks.
The same year Athens was convulsed with riots after the shooting of a teenage anarchist by police. The following year, on the anniversary of the shooting, rioting began again.
In November 2010 a Greek anarchist group mailed a total of 14 letter bombs to foreign embassies in Athens. When members of the group, called the Conspiracy Nuclei of Fire, were arrested, Italian anarchists began a letter bombing campaign in solidarity.
In December 2010 a courthouse in Athens was bombed by anarchists to protest legal action being taken against the architects of the original letter bombing campaign. The same year a bombing at a government office building killed a police officer, and a journalist was assassinated.
This year we have seen successive waves of violence in Greece, with the streets filled with anarchists and the police battling for control of the city. The heart of the anarchist district in the city, Exarcheia, remains a virtual no go area for security forces to this day.
All of this unrest is fueled by a deteriorating economic situation and the resulting decline of the welfare states of Europe. An entire generation of young people has grown up with a sense of entitlement, an abiding belief that it is the obligation of the state to provide for their welfare and to support them in perpetuity. As governments across the continent are forced to grapple with economic reality and make dramatic cuts in the social programs that have created this expectation, they are fueling an intense, angry reaction. That reaction is driving a resurgence of the leftist/anarchist movement and an increase in violence.
It will get worse. Greece, teetering on the edge of bankruptcy and grappling with 35 percent unemployment amongst its young people, is on the leading edge of this phenomenon. Even so, it is only now just beginning to actually institute the cuts and reforms mandated by the EU. As the impact of these measures begins to be felt, the reaction will strengthen and spread.
Many other European nations are following close behind. As they are forced to begin to implement their own austerity measures they will likely see the same kind of reaction. Once accustomed to cradle to grave security, people are not easily convinced to accept that they must work harder and take responsibility for their own lives.
"The economic recession is conducive to political tensions and, in a number of Member States, is triggering both left and right-wing extremists to demonstrate their views both on the recession's causes and on the solutions required. This is raising public order concerns and threatening social cohesion. Growing unemployment, especially among young people seeking to enter the job market, has radicalized some youths, even those with relatively high levels of education. In 2010, 45 left 'wing and anarchist attacks occurred. The increased use of violence lead to six fatalities." TE-SAT 2011, EU TERRORISM SITUATION AND TREND REPORT
The full scope of what is coming is not yet clear. Whether what will emerge will remain primarily street violence or will evolve is unknown. In the 1970's, a large amorphous collection of leftist groups gave birth to organized, highly effective terrorist organizations. That may happen again.
However the situation evolves, one thing is sure. The nightmare has only begun.