Image Credit: Niño Jose Heredia/©Gulf News

On New Year’s Eve, something happened that I don’t really want to talk about. It happened not to me but to about 100 women in Cologne and other German cities, some of whom probably didn’t want to talk about it either; it often takes a while for victims to report sexual assault to the police.

But that’s not quite why it has taken nearly a week to piece together the story of a spate of muggings and sexual attacks carried out that night by seemingly organised gangs of young men. Many Germans are asking why politicians, police and broadcasters seem so reluctant to discuss what happened under cover of the crowds (the state broadcaster EZF apologised for not covering the attacks until Tuesday), and whether it’s because the attackers are widely described as looking Arab or north African. Which is why, of course, liberals like me are reluctant to talk about it.

For xenophobes and racists, or merely anyone opposed to immigration, this story is Christmas come a week late. Rightwing politicians are salivating at this juicy new angle of attack on Chancellor Angela Merkel’s “open door” refugee policy — although German authorities say the perpetrators’ origins are unknown and there’s no evidence linking recently arrived refugees to the attacks. Just watch the misogynistic dinosaurs defending young women’s right to party, now that it’s a legitimate way of attacking immigration. How long before UK Independence Party’s Nigel Farage, recently reduced to grabbing headlines by suggesting someone might have murderously sabotaged his Volvo, takes up a story that seems tailor-made for the year of a likely EU referendum?

British newspapers were yesterday warning of an immigrant “demographic timebomb”, on the grounds that migrants are disproportionately young men and young men are disproportionately responsible for violent crime. You’d never know that until now the demographic timebomb everyone feared was an ageing Europe, devoid of fit young working people to fund their pensions.

So no wonder liberals would do anything to avoid fanning these flames, since we see in all this righteous indignation a blatantly racist old trope about barbarians at the gates. We bend over backwards to report it responsibly, to moderate the frothing rage bubbling up below the line. Quite rightly, we argue that punishing millions of refugees for the actions of a few criminals of unknown origin makes no more sense than branding all white men paedophiles because of Jimmy Savile. Or we say there have always been muggers and gropers, they’re only global news when they’re not white.

But by trying not to give succour to racists, the risk is that we end up miserably self-censoring, giving the “why can’t we talk about immigration?” brigade ammunition for their conspiracy theories. Journalism isn’t really journalism when it avoids stories for fear of how some might react. The parallels between German politicians’ discomfort over Cologne and Britain’s response to predominantly Asian gangs grooming girls in Rotherham for sexual exploitation aren’t exact, but there are lessons to be learned.

The first is that pushing victims under the carpet for the sake of cohesion is dangerous. When allegations about older Asian men preying on white girls in northern cities initially surfaced, well over a decade ago, it was the BNP that first took up the cudgels. Unfortunately, that meant journalists and politicians instinctively shied away, wary of giving the BNP publicity.

It’s too simplistic to blame the failure to tackle grooming on so-called political correctness alone — the profoundly politically incorrect tendency to see exploited girls as “slags” complicit in their abuse, bog-standard incompetence and even alleged corruption played significant parts — but if everyone had asked harder questions a decade ago then it seems likely some children wouldn’t have suffered. It was a reminder that victims are victims, even when championed by the wrong people for the wrong reasons.

But the second important lesson is that, perhaps surprisingly, confronting the links between ethnicity or culture and crime doesn’t necessarily change the response all that much.

The New Year’s Eve attacks are shocking at least partly because they’re confusing. If they were primarily sexually motivated, done for kicks or fuelled by assumptions about western women’s sexual availability, then surely there would be no reason to steal the victims’ valuables. Rapists seek power, not money.

But if these were primarily robberies, and the groping just a novel way of disorientating victims long enough to pick their pockets, it’s odd that some of the assaults were reportedly so serious and that not all victims lost valuables. Perhaps different crimes are simply being lumped under one umbrella, but as with the mob assaults on women, including journalists covering protests in Tahrir Square, where sexual opportunism was hard to distinguish from political intimidation, this feels like a new phenomenon.

Liberals shouldn’t be afraid to ask hard questions. Young German women thankfully enjoy historically unprecedented economic and sexual freedom, with their expensive smartphones and their right to celebrate New Year’s Eve however they want. The same isn’t always true of young male migrants exchanging life under repressive regimes, where they may at least have enjoyed superiority over women, for scraping by at the bottom of Europe’s social and economic food chain. It is not madness to ask if this has anything to do with attacks that render confident, seemingly lucky young women humiliated and powerless. But even if it does, the answer wouldn’t be to halt immigration — even if that were possible, which it isn’t regardless of whether Britain leaves the EU — just in case a few immigrants are sexually aggressive, any more than the answer to Savile is to keep all men away from children.

Too often anti-immigrant feeling stems from what’s really a long-running failure of the state — to protect children at risk, to provide enough social housing or school places, to police what has reportedly been a rough area of Cologne for years — which becomes more visible as the population grows. And since that growth can’t be turned on and off like a tap, whatever some politicians say, the answer is for governments to do what we elect them to do: rise to the challenge, calm the fear that breeds extremism by demonstrating they can cope.

Which in this case means treating this crime wave exactly as they would any other: policing more effectively, with extra manpower if necessary, and being upfront at all times about doing so. Bluster and blame fools nobody. But neither, it turns out, does queasy silence.

— Guardian News & Media Ltd