A colleague tells me of a friend who was at the Hamburg train station during a recent bomb scare. Passengers, evacuated from the suspect train, were quite upset--about the delay. No one took the threat seriously. I confess to my own mundane thoughts in a similar situation. I was at the Zurich airport last month departing for London when the news came that flights to Britain were cancelled because the Brits had thwarted a major terrorist plot. My first thought was, How in the world will I ever get my checked suitcase back?
This summer's thwarted plot to blow up two trains in Germany has started a long overdue debate here about the nature of the terrorist threat. Until now the conventional wisdom has been that Germany was immune from Islamic terrorism because Gerhard Schröder kept the country out of the Iraq war. Britain was attacked because Tony Blair is a poodle of the Americans. Spain suffered attacks because José María Aznar helped remove Saddam Hussein from power. This is all nonsense, of course. The Canadians uncovered a plot this summer in which terrorists sought to attack the parliament and behead the prime minister. Canada was against the Iraq invasion. Al Qaeda has murdered innocents in Indonesia, the world's largest Muslim country, which opposed the Iraq war.
Alexander Ritzmann, a talented young Free Democratic member of the Berlin senate, says it will still take some time for Germans to get the picture: "It's not what we do, it's who we are that makes us a target." Ritzmann calls this "the central reality Germany has been avoiding." Last week, he gave his own plea on the floor of the Berlin senate for Germany to wake up. To be sure, Chancellor Angela Merkel has already had a sobering effect on the German foreign policy and security debate. Merkel is empirical, a scientist by training. Last February at the annual international security conference in Munich, an Iranian official stood up and informed her that Iran has a law requiring it to enrich uranium. "Then change the law," she said.
The Schröder era was not a complete wasteland. Otto Schily, the dour interior minister--a Green turned Social Democrat--was tough as nails and proved a serious ally for the United States and others. But the debate about Islamic terrorism during those years was mostly silly and irresponsible. Mathias Döpfner, the chairman and CEO of the Springer publishing company, wrote a searing column a couple years ago in which he argued that the German debate had been reduced to the goofy and lazy formula "Bush is dumb and bad."
The events of the summer have at least gotten Germans' attention. The first of four arrested was a 21-year-old Lebanese student in Kiel named Youssef Mohammed E.H. On July 31, he had planted bombs aboard two commuter trains on their way to Koblenz and Dortmund. The bombs failed to explode. Nothing has been concluded, but it appears that there might have been an al Qaeda connection. Last week Stern magazine announced that "Der Terror ist da!" ("Terror is here"). Der Spiegel's latest cover story is on the new German angst. But the debate "has still not really heated up," says Ritzmann. "We still need a huge step," he adds.
There are those who have been trying. The most important, perhaps, has been Hans Magnus Enzensberger, one of the country's leading literary figures and social critics. Enzensberger debated the Iraq war with another of Germany's leading intellectuals, Jürgen Habermas. Habermas insisted that Europe, with its superior humanistic values, go its separate way from America. Enzensberger vigorously dissented in the pages of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.
Earlier this year, Enzensberger published "Men of Terror," an essay on "the Radical Loser." Enzensberger blames neither poverty nor George W. Bush for the scourge of Islamic terror. He sees its roots in an intolerant vision of Islam, traceable to the Muslim Brotherhood's founding in Egypt in the 1920s. The essay quotes generously from the U.N. Human Development Report and concludes that massive deficits in education and self-government in the Arab world have helped create an incubator for the dreadful complexes of inferiority and alienation that produce the "radical loser." Enzensberger's essay is a big step toward serious debate. But otherwise the state of discourse has been underwhelming. Germany's most celebrated Middle East hand, an elderly eccentric author and journalist named Peter Scholl-Latour, has argued al Qaeda is a trumped-up rag-tag team mostly invented by the Americans.
The good news in all this? A majority of Germans now say they see a real threat. But then the Brits do, too. Eighty percent say yes to the war on terror, but chiefly through more hawkish domestic policies and not in alliance with the United States. Just wait until Tony Blair's exit to see how bad things can become. We can only hope Angela Merkel will step up. Europe needs a serious debate, and only serious leadership will bring it about.
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