Germany's Misunderstood 'Terror Crisis'
The recent attacks in German cities have created the impression of a violent climate or even a heightened terror threat. Yet I tell friends outside Germany who inquire about it that I still feel safe; our daughters, aged 13 and 6, still move around Berlin unaccompanied in a way they wouldn't be able to do in Moscow or New York.
The nature of these incidents and the police response to them suggest that Germany has violence and terrorism under better control than France, where hundreds of people have recently perished in a number of major attacks perpetrated by people well-known to police or intelligence services -- and certainly under better control than the U.S., where shootings occur with frightening regularity.
The biggest of the recent German attacks was Friday's rampage -- "Amoklauf" in German -- by an 18-year-old German-born kid of Iranian descent, Ali David Somboly. A casual racist would assume any multiple murder committed by someone with a Muslim name would be an act of Islamist terrorism, but Somboly's case was different. Chubby, awkward, bullied at school, he would often threaten to kill his classmates. The threat was more serious than the classmates believed: Somboly was studying a German edition of Peter Langman's "Why Kids Kill: Inside the Minds of School Shooters," a book written using American material. On Friday, as he fired on random people at and around a Munich shopping center, he acted in full accordance with a passage in the book.
"Most often," Langman wrote, "the shooters opened fire on crowds of people with no attempt to kill anyone in particular. How can the attacks be revenge for bullying when the shooters typically gunned down random people?" He went on to explain that while bullying could contribute to school shooters' alienation and depression, it was often brought on by the victim's own antisocial behavior.
Asked why he thought Somboly had the book, Langman told The Guardian: "There must be some desire for self-understanding."
The perpetrators of the other three attacks were asylum seekers who arrived last year. In Baden-Wuerttemberg, a 21-year-old Syrian killed a woman with a machete. They had worked in the same snack shop together. Co-workers said he had been in love with her for months.
Also on Sunday, a 27-year-old Syrian whose asylum request had been turned down failed to stage a suicide bombing at a music festival in Ansbach, in Bavaria: He couldn't get in without a ticket. So he blew himself up outside, wounding 12 people with flying pieces of metal from his backpack. The man had tried to commit suicide twice before. It's not clear whether he had anything to do with terrorist causes.
Another attack, claimed by Islamic State though its perpetrator, a 17-year-old Afghan refugee, had had no links with any terror cell, but probably had an Islamist motive. The teenager, who wielded an ax and a knife on a train near Wuerzburg, and who gravely injured five people before being shot by police, had apparently "self-radicalized" by watching Islamic State propaganda on the internet.
As the Munich events were unfolding, French President Francois Hollande called them "a disgusting terrorist attack" that "aims to foment fear in Germany after other European countries" before anything was even known about the shooter and his motives. That's not how things work in Germany. Police and other officials only speak of terror when they find specific evidence. That's wise: They don't want society riled up against the Muslim community, not least because it's not a hotbed of extremism and criminality here.
In the first quarter of 2016, according to the Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA), immigrants committed 69,000 offenses, an 18 percent year-on-year drop. About 23 percent of these offenses were violent ones. In Germany, about 6 million crimes are registered every year, or about 75 per 1,000 people. Given that 20 percent of the country's population has an immigration background, immigrants commit fewer crimes than the national average -- extrapolating the first quarter rate would produce about 17 offenses per 1,000 people. Immigrants commit a larger number of total killings, but it is still in proportion to their share of the population. Though Syrians, Afghans and Iraqis commit a high absolute number of offenses, it's in keeping with their share in Germany's immigrant population. (Immigrants from North Africa, Georgia and Serbia are caught in a disproportionate number of crimes, however.)
In other words, the situation is manageable. Unlike France, Germany has not seen a major attack, with dozens of casualties, by a suspect known to be a radical, such as a fighter who has returned from Syria. According to Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere, police are now conducting 708 investigations into Islamist terrorism, with a total of 1,029 suspects. That doesn't seem like a high number, given that Germany let in more than a million asylum seekers last year, many of them entirely undocumented -- and yet the casualty count in terror attacks on German soil is remarkably low: It's difficult for "lone wolf" offenders, who are the hardest to detect, to obtain firearms and effective explosives.
Somboly's rampage took, by German standards, a huge number of lives in part because the teenager managed to get his hands on a gun and ammunition, and in part because the police response to his actions wasn't as rapid and efficient as in other cases, betraying a certain sense of panic at the unusual, American-style shooting spree.
It's possible that Germany has also had better luck than France or Belgium. Luck, though, is usually a consequence of people doing something right. In Germany, the authorities are doing their best to avoid creating a climate of hatred against immigrants, but police work is mostly sharp and professional, even in the smaller towns, weapons laws are strict and the black-market prices out many potential lone-wolf terrorists whose radicalization is a response to their inability to integrate.
The recent attacks are grouped together because of the origin and religion of the perpetrators. They have little in common, however, and they do not represent a spike in crime by the most numerous group of immigrants to arrive in Germany lately. The media frenzy will eventually quiet down if there are no major incidents and the government does a good job explaining its strategy to combat terrorism as well as be vigilant against the random acts of madness that Germany has witnessed recently. Germans seem willing to give the government the benefit of the doubt; polls suggest that Chancellor Angela Merkel's grand coalition government would still have a majority in parliament if elections took place now, not in 2017 as scheduled.
As for my family, we're not taking any extra precautions. The world can be dangerous, especially in the bigger cities and in mass gatherings. Germany is still a safer place than most.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
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