“Failure to provide effective protection does a disservice to freedom”by Pauline Neville-Jones / December 21, 2016 / Leave a comment
The horrifying—presumed terrorist—attack in Breitscheidplatz, Berlin has the makings of a landmark event. On Monday, 19th December, a truck ploughed into a Christmas market in the city, leaving 12 dead and 49 wounded. It has cast a long shadow over Christmas festivities, as intended by the perpetrators. The attack could have potentially major consequences for politics in Germany and Europe more generally.
As things stand, nearly 48 hours later, there are more questions than answers. As the attackers are still at large, the trail will have cooled, making their detection and apprehension more difficult. Islamic State has made what looks like an opportunist claim of responsibility. A Tunisian is now being hunted and it is a good bet that more than one individual was involved. It is a commonplace—and nonetheless important—principle that good intelligence is the key to reducing risk and increasing security. Coming days will reveal whether there were specific leads which were not picked up, understood or passed on in time by intelligence agencies and police in Germany or across Europe.
That said, the Berlin police will still have questions to answer about protection. There were enough general warnings about the threat to Christmas markets as well—as well as experience of the earlier attack in Nice, where a lorry was used to plough into pedestrians—for high priority to have been given to monitoring and controlling access to such crowded places. So why was it that this huge articulated vehicle was able so easily to drive right into the market? It is widely argued in Germany that concessions should not be made to the terrorists and this robust attitude is commendable. But it is hardly jettisoning the stuff of liberty to make wanton murder harder to commit. And failure to provide effective protection does a disservice to freedom.
The speculation about consequences of the attack for policy and politics has already begun. The fact that the vehicle was Polish may lead to a renewed debate about the lack of border checks which could help increase security inside the vast Schengen area. More potent in the blame game will be accusations, already being made by right wing parties like Alternative für Deutschland, that Chancellor Angela Merkel’s “Open Door” for the earlier flood into Germany of scantily documented migrants is responsible for the increased terrorist threat. The evidence to support this assertion in relation to Monday’s attack is currently lacking—but is unlikely to be needed to gain renewed political impact. It is easy to play on the fear that terrorists have infiltrated the ranks of the new arrivals. And, as British authorities know all too well, sending unwanted people back proves very difficult.
Increasing the capability of German intelligence agencies and the police, delicate subjects given German history, are bound now to be a policy priority and will play in political debate. The danger of popular pressure on Muslims, whether new arrivals or the long standing Turkish community will increase, as will the frequency of noisy demonstrations, especially in the Länder of former East Germany. Though the door on large scale immigration is now firmly shut, inside Germany there is a combustible mix forming part of the backdrop to the forthcoming election campaign.
Here we have another test for liberalism: how to provide security without undermining the freedoms that governments seek to protect. In 2017 electorates will draw conclusions and deliver verdicts not just in Germany but in the Netherlands and France too.