Reports from Cologne about New Year’s Eve’s mass sex attacks just keep getting worse. The number of victims in Cologne is now past 170, and still rising as more womencome forward. Stuttgart, Frankfurt, Düsseldorf, Bielefeld, Hamburg, even Berlin have reported similar assaults. Now police in Finland, Sweden, Austria and Switzerland say the same happened there. Unsurprisingly the far right are making propaganda hay– and the left, stubbornly unable to admit the problem, are helping.

The New Year’s Eve atrocities weren’t opportunistic. They were coordinated. It’s too early to say whether this was a new form of terrorist attack aimed at provoking anti-Muslim hatred, or a twisted protest by resentful asylum seekers, but there’s no question it was planned.

A woman in Cologne saw three Arab men giving orders to attackers, pointing out women to molest. Helsinki police confirm they had advance intelligence of a plot by refugees to assault women during the festivities.

The attacks were despicable. What’s worse is that the authorities tried to cover it up, to prevent hostility against refugees. Last Wednesday Cologne’s police chief claimed there was no evidence asylum seekers had been involved. The city’s mayor went further, saying it was “absolutely impermissible” to suggest there were refugees among the attackers.

They were lying. The Cologne authorities knew by morning on New Year’s Day that most of those involved were refugees.

Just to put the icing on the cake, yesterday the anti-immigrant group Pegida held a demonstration in Cologne in protest at the attacks.

Some demonstrators threw firecrackers, as the rapists had done on New Year’s Eve. The police response was ruthless, with multiple arrests and the crowd dispersed with water cannons. As public relations it was a disaster. Within minutes the predictable question – “Where were the water cannons last Friday?” - was all over social media.

Europe’s far right contains many distasteful elements and some frightening ones. Xenophobes, ultra-nationalists and religious fundamentalists are all there. In Germany itself the shade of Hitler still lingers in the darkest corners. But the far right are people too. They’re not comic-book villains, monsters too vile to be engaged in rational debate.

They’re people, with concerns and desires. The concerns may be irrational, the desires authoritarian and repellent, but to the people who hold them they matter. Why should they matter to us? Because by refusing to treat the far right as human we’re pushing people into their embrace.

In 2004 Nick Griffin, leader of the British National Party, claimed that Muslim sex gangs were abusing and raping vulnerable English girls. He was accused of inciting racial hatred and his allegations were angrily dismissed. This was easy to justify; Griffin is an extremist and a bigot. Sadly, in 2014 it turned out he was right. A Muslim-led gang in the town of Rotherham had raped almost 1,500 local girls as young as 13.

If anyone had listened to Griffin it could have been stopped ten years earlier.

And now it’s happened again. The far right had reasons of their own to warn that an influx of African and Middle Eastern men would lead to sexual abuse of European women, but they were right. And those who tried to cover up the involvement of refugees in last week’s outrage were, on many levels, wrong.

So what’s going to happen next time immigrants are blamed for sexual abuse? Who are people going to believe? The police and politicians, who they know lied about Cologne, or the neo-Nazis who turned out to be telling the truth? A lot of them are going to believe the fascists, and afterCologne's disgraceful cover-up we have to acknowledge that to do so is not irrational.

The far right is gaining credibility, and well-meaning idiots on the center and left are to blame. If the fires of a new Holocaust erupt across Europe the racists will be stoking the flames, but people like Cologne’s mayor will have handed them the matches.

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