Security vs. Freedom Germany Overdue for Anti-Terrorism Debate

Berlin needs a viable anti-terrorism plan, not an army of volunteers or auxiliary police, writes the head of Handelsblatt’s politics desk.
Police outside the regional train in the Bavarian city of Würzburg, where a teenage refugee injured 5 in an ax rampage on Monday night.

No one gets used to terror, though it has become part of our daily life. In Paris last November, there were several attacks at once. Weeks later terrorists struck again in Brussels. Last month at an Orlando nightclub, an alleged Islamist shot and killed dozens. Last week a man drove through a crowded promenade in the French city of Nice, killing 84 and injuring more than 300 others. Then on Monday a teenage refugee injured five in an ax rampage in Würzburg before he was shot and killed by police. The so-called Islamic State claimed it was linked to both of the last two attacks.

After each of these horrible events, individuals pause for a moment to worry, but then get back to work. What else can citizens do? We’re perplexed and powerless.

But these attacks raise a fundamental question: Can the state protect us from terrorism? Whether these murders are connected to the Islamic State or the work of a lone wolf ultimately doesn’t make a difference.

The time has come to tell Germany’s citizens the truth: It’s a miracle that up to now, terrorist assassins have failed to carry out their murderous plans in Germany.

In France, nerves are so frayed that politicians aren’t beating around the bush any longer. “More innocent people will lose their lives,” Prime Minister Manuel Valls warned last month after an attacker, who had pledged allegiance to the Islamic State, fatally stabbed a police commander and his partner in a Paris suburb.

Mr. Valls did not say how the state could protect its citizens. How could he? Apparently he doesn’t know.

Meanwhile, the country’s interior minister called on French citizens to volunteer for military reserve duty to fight terrorism. But if Paris wants to transfer its responsibility for maintaining security to its citizens, then the country is in a bad way.

And what about the situation in Germany? In a news conference after an international soccer game was canceled earlier this summer due to an apparent terrorist threat, Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière was asked why the game had been called off. He replied that he couldn’t give details, because that “would make citizens feel insecure.”

One inevitably recalls Mr. de Maizière’s proposal to deploy auxiliary police – including students, pensioners or the unemployed – against gangs of burglars. This seems just as helpless as the plan of his French colleague to establish a sort of volunteer army of “patriots.”

By the way, the German army is short on young recruits, forcing Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen to consider opening the armed forces to foreign E.U. nationals.

The time has come to tell Germany’s citizens the truth: It’s a miracle that up to now, terrorist assassins have failed to carry out their murderous plans in Germany.

Recently, the police prevented a bloodbath in the historic city center of Düsseldorf when one of the accomplices revealed the plans beforehand.

And 17-year-old refugee who attacked people with an ax and a knife in a train near the Bavarian city of Würzburg only managed to injured 5 people, 3 of them severely. A passenger pulled the emergency brake and police shot and killed the attacker as he fled. The Islamic State has claimed responsibility.

Federal Prosecutor General Peter Frank has warned that Islamist terrorism has already come much closer than many German citizens have wanted to acknowledge up to now.

The fact is, Germany long ago became a platform for terrorists in the heart of Europe. Most of the time it is a transit country for the culprits. But many remain here.

Europol has estimated that of the up to 5,000 Europeans who have gone to fight for the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, about 800 were Germans. Between 25 and 40 percent of them have meanwhile returned to their home countries, which puts them at further risk of terrorist attacks. The Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution said that last year, 17 persons came to Europe with the influx of refugees at the command of the Islamic State.

How can a city like Düsseldorf protect itself against terrorism? Should the mayor require that all visitors to the historic city center be subjected to body searches? That’s not possible, and no one wants it.

Some quickly call for a stronger state that hits hard and cleans things up. But what sort of strong state do we want? Certainly not one of Orwellian proportions that monitors everything and everyone, even prying into thoughts. And not a country like the United States, where almost anyone can get a semi-automatic weapon with relative ease. Nor does a “weapons-light” model, like Switzerland with its citizen militia, come into question.

But there should be a discussion about what we want in Germany. If the established parties don’t do it, populists will take up the slack. The federal government must finally present a plan. The recently passed anti-terrorism legislation is only a first step.

Granted, there is a “Joint Terror Defense Center” in Germany. But it doesn’t exist on a European level. The biographies of the assassins and their methods in preparing attacks make clear that a global network exists. Better coordination between national secret services is necessary. Without information from the United States, German spies would depend even more on combing through newspaper articles.

Berlin also needs to ensure better security and support for refugees who are unaccompanied minors, as Monday's ax attack in Würzburg has shown.

Moreover, Europe needs an electronic registration of all people that enter and leave the Schengen Area. And it is utterly unclear how the state intends to proceed against preachers of hate and recruiters of terrorists in courtyard mosques.

Above all, we must realize: Without security there is no freedom. But without freedom, security is nothing.


Thomas Sigmund heads Handelsblatt’s politics desk. To contact him: [email protected]