A word of advice from Germany

Gerhart Baum was the German (FDP) Minister of the Interior from 1978 to 1982. He was closely involved in combating the Rote Armee Fraktion (RAF) which terrorised German society in those years. As a minister, he oversaw a considerable restriction of the rights of RAF suspects and their lawyers, and a widening of the powers of the secret service and the police. Not a sissy, in other words, and someone who knows what he is talking about.

Mr Baum spoke interesting words on Dutch television today. “Do not undermine the state of law in order to catch terrorists”, he said, “we tried in Germany, and it did not work.” Because it widened the number of suspects so much, that the police lost track of the real terrorists. The RAF murders, some of them particularly gruesome, held Germany in a state of fear for many years.

Of course, police and intelligence work was necessary to combat the fifty or so unrepenting terrorists, killers, that were active in Germany at the time. Those fifty were hopeless cases anyway. But they could not do what they did without the help of thousands of sympathisers providing them with shelter, information, and other help – people whose sympathy for the RAF only increased because of the harsh measures. “The number of attacks”, said Baum, “went down only when we started doing something we had not been doing before: to look at the causes of terrorism. Only when we began to address the causes, the number of sympathisers decreased, and with it the number of attacks.”

updated update:
Nosemonkey of Europhobia adds eloquently to the case Baum is making with his account of life in Britain under the IRA threat at the time. He is very right to point out that, unlike the USA, Europe has dealt with terrorism before. Some of the more overheated reactions from the US, even if they come from fellow Europeans, might want to take that experience a bit more seriously.

I also forgot to mention another programme shown on Dutch TV yesterday whose message somehow underpinned Mr Baum’s by explaining that many of the security measures taken to protect ports, airports and other major targets are largely symbolic and will never suffice to “seal off” society from terrorist attacks. They may give the impression that the government does what is necessary to protect us, but seen in this light, their practical effect is that of being a nuisance keeping us in a state of fear.

We may have to start getting used to living with the threat of terrorism for a while. There’s another reason to take Mr Baum’s advice seriously.

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