Thursday, 28 July 2016

Despite a gruesome week, Germans keep calm and carry on

Reports in American media of German 'panic' are greatly exaggerated. Most still believe Merkel's refugee policy is the right thing to do.

Over the past week, as Germany was struck by a string of four violent attacks in a row, German Chancellor Angela Merkel stayed on holiday.

It might seem strange for people in other countries. It stands in stark contrast to the political reaction in neighboring France, where French President Francois Hollande rushed to the scene of recent attacks there and made dramatic pronouncements and new policy promises. 

It has matched the general tone of the measured response here in Germany, both from the media and from politicians. There has been no hysteria.

Of course, this is largely because the scale and scope of the French and German attacks were very different. The German terrorist attacks were failures, killing no one but the perpetrator. While the attacks in Belgium and France were co-ordinated large-sale attacks by ISIS cells, the events in Germany have been small attempts by lone wolves. While the other attacks have had clear links with ISIS, the Germany links are tenuous or non-existent.

As the facts emerged about the four Germany attacks, it became clear that only two of them were related to Islamist terrorism. Two of the attackers recorded videos claiming allegiance to the Islamic State in Syria (ISIS), though there is no evidence that they ever had any contact with ISIS before the attacks. 

The third attack was in fact a case of workplace violence. The Munich attack, which was the most deadly, was perpetrated by a teenager born in Germany who was obsessed with US-style mass shootings (the date was chosen because it was the five-year anniversary of the Breivik massacre in Norway).

Refugee-related killings

Though they were not connected, all four attacks had some kind of relationship to refugees. First there was an axe attack on a train by a teenage asylum-seeker from Afghanistan, who had arrived in Germany last year as an unaccompanied child refugee and lived with a German foster family. He claimed allegiance to ISIS. 

Then there was the Munich shooting. Even though he had no Islamist-related motivations for the killing (a fact that took some days to become clear), the story became muddled in peoples' minds because his parents were refugees. They fled Iran in the 1970s after the revolution, claiming asylum in Germany.

Before all the facts were known about the Munich attack, word came two days later that a 21-year-old Syrian asylum-seeker had attacked four people in the Southern German city of Reutlingen, killing a pregnant Polish woman. That too turned out to be unrelated to Islamist terrorism. It was instead an episode of workplace violence (the woman was his co-worker). 

And before that information was clear, another attack unfolded. Hours later, a 27-year-old Syrian refugee blew himself up outside a music festival. His crude explosive device injured 12, but killed only him. He pledged allegiance to ISIS in a video. 

By the end of the week, you could forgive people for being left with the impression that they had just endured four terrorist attacks. And it wasn't helped by people like UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson asserting that Munich was an act of terrorism, before the facts were clear.

Restrained reaction

Given Merkel's controversial policy of taking in all Syrian refugees who can make it to Germany, the refugee connection was bound to cause disquiet. A majority of Germans still support Merkel's refugee policy but there is increasing worry that the country cannot handle the influx. One million refugees arrived in the country last year, a  number roughly equivalent to the entire population of Estonia.

There has been concern that the refugees, scarred by their experiences in the Syrian war, will have psychological problems that Germany’s mental health facilities cannot accommodate. The recent attacks, with their clear links to mental health issues, will only add to these fears. The 

The Ansbach suicide bomber had been in and out of mental institutions and had tried to kill himself twice.

The concerns about mental health converge with cultural concerns. These were exacerbated at the start of this year when a mob of around 2,000 men – many recent immigrants and asylum-seekers from Syria and Iraq – sexually assaulted around 1,200 women in Cologne’s main train station during New Years Eve celebrations.

There is concern that young men coming from cultures with different attitudes toward women, who have been through the traumas of war, might have difficulty adjusting to their new circumstances.

Iron Merkel

The right-wing Alternative for Germany party has tried to capitalise on the feat, but with little effect. The country's mainstream politicians have not given in to populist sabre-rattling, and the domestic media coverage has been far more restrained in covering these attacks than that of the American, British and French press.

Even with the populist pressure from the far-right, Merkel remained resolute when she returned from her holiday today to give her annual summer press conference.

She refused to back down on her pledge to take in refugees. She said some changes are needed in light of the attacks, for instance people whose asylum claims are rejected (as the Ansbach attacker's was) should be deported faster. Local municipalities need more police, and Germany needs to up its intelligence game. The country currently has a very underdeveloped intelligence system that is split between the country's 16 federal states.

But the policy measures offered were minor, and not very specific. Merkel's main message was that we cannot let fear spur us into knee-jerk reaction.

She stressed that there was no need to rush back to Berlin in the hours after the attacks to have crisis meetings because nothing about the facts on the ground had changed as a result.

“We know since at least the Paris attacks that ISIS also use refugee routes to smuggle terrorists through," she said. "We have also known for a long time about the travel routes taken by people who are threats to the state."

Terrorist attacks are designed to spread terror, she said, and to make Germany betray its own values. She quoted a principle enshrined in the German constitution: “human dignity shall be inviolable". 

“These principles mean we will give asylum to those who are politically persecuted and we will give protection to those who flee war and expulsion according to the Geneva Refugee Convention," she said.

Of course, Merkel has more flexibility here than leaders of other countries. Unlike in France, Germany does not have a powerful far-right to contend with. While Hollande must counter the increasing influence of the Front National, in Germany Merkel does not face the same level of threat from the significantly small Alternative for Germany party.

France also has a much more troubled relationship with its Muslim (chiefly North African) immigrant community than Germany has with its Muslim (chiefly Turkish) immigrant community. 

That troubled relationship has given more oxygen to far-right forces in France than has been salient in Germany.

All's quiet, for now

There is much to admire in Merkel's steely resistance to populism, and the reasonable response of most of the German public. But of course, Germany hasn't yet been hit hard by terrorism.

Germans have watched as large terrorist events hit their neighbours. There was a feeling that it was inevitable that these events would cross the German border. Last week it did. But discounting the Munich attack, which was not terror-related, the two attacks in Germany utterly failed. 

Both the axe attack and the suicide bomb killed no one except the perpetrator. The Ansbach bomb was poorly made, and the attack was clearly not well-planned given that the attacker didn't even have a ticket to enter the music festival in which he intended to set off the bomb.

But what happens if Germany sees a large-scale attack like the one seen in Nice this month, or the one seen in Brussels in March? That's the big question in this country right now.

Talking with German friends, they seem to believe that German resolve will continue to hold firm even in the event of a large attack with many casualties. After all, they say, there is no way it could come as a surprise to anyone. Everyone is expecting it. The ability to terrorise comes partly from shock, and the sheer frequency of these events has lessened the power of Islamist terrorists to terrorise in this way.

Not to slip into historical cliches, but Germans know from experience what happens when the public gets whipped up in mass fear and overreaction. The attitude of Germans to their week of terror should serve as an example to their French and American counterparts.

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