Once again, we have witnessed, in disbelief and horror, the unfolding of a brutal and senseless terrorist attack, this time on Barcelona’s famous Ramblas, one of the city’s most popular tourist locations. People from across the world were caught up in this tragedy, lost their lives or were seriously injured. They were victims of ideology, hatred and cruelty, a very dangerous mix. Again we have seen how an open, free society does not always have the means to keep individuals safe. Cowardly attacks of this type that use everyday objects such as cars to kill or maim are shaking our society. The more we feel unsafe, the more the terrorists feel they have succeeded in their aims. One consequence at locations such as airports and railway stations is a heightened police presence and increased monitoring of individuals. The more we try to prevent terrorist attacks by additional monitoring, the more terror intrudes on our daily lives. This vicious circle is difficult to break. In addition, we lose some of the freedoms democratic systems aim to provide for their citizens.
Clearly, with terrorists having shifted their focus to targeting “ordinary” people at any location with any type of “weapon”, a new approach is required to meet and overcome this threat. Unfortunately, I cannot say precisely what such an approach might entail. We cannot simply mourn the loss of life and feel the pain of those involved as each successive horror incident occurs. Neither is it helpful just to blame the politicians while demanding an ever greater police presence and stronger measures. In the long term, it is within society itself that something has to change, but what that change might be and how it should be brought about is a wholly other question.
In addition to repeat terrorist attacks, we are also witnessing widespread dislocation and destabilisation at a political level with chilling threats being issued to resort to weapons instead of words to solve conflicts. It is frightening to think that the experience of two World Wars is not sufficient to prevent the threat of war from looming over us once again. I wonder what an alien would think if he (she, it?) could observe the Earth and see humans fighting against each other instead of doing their utmost to preserve and safeguard this perfect spacecraft, our planet Earth.
I feel somewhat helpless in this situation. Besides expressing my heartfelt sympathy with all the victims of terror, their relatives and friends, my contribution as Director General of ESA must be to continue with global peaceful cooperation in space transcending all national borders. While I am unable to offer a sustainable solution to this problem, of one thing I am sure: as we confront it, we must never surrender the values we hold dear.