July 31, 2016 – Until this month, Germany had been spared from terrorist attacks with momentous losses of life.
Since July 18, four attacks have occurred: one by a teenage refugee on a train in Würzburg; a mass shooting and suicide by a German schoolboy in Munich; a murder and attack by a refugee in Reutlingen; and a suicide bombing by a refugee in Ansbach.
A total of 10 innocent bystanders died in the attacks: one in Reutlingen and nine in Munich. The confirmation that two of the perpetrators were motivated by radical Islamic ideology has changed the mood here in Germany.
While the attacks have been frequent, none has been as deadly as the attacks in Nice, Paris or Orlando. That is a perverse comfort in times when attacks occur daily. But Germans no longer feel like terrorism is a distant tragedy. On July 25, Bavarian journalist Andreas Bachmann commented that these events represent “the end of the world as we know it.” Fear and vigilance have entered the German vocabulary.
As a cultural studies scholar who researches migration to Germany, my research focuses on how stereotypes about Muslims – especially of violent Muslim men – are pervasive in German culture. Despite the association of refugees with terror, the most deadly attack was committed by a German citizen in Munich. Media responses to these attacks show an increasingly polarized political climate.
The German media landscape
Germany has a partially state-sponsored media system that requires official networks to be “balanced, nonpartisan and objective.”
In the breaking news segment broadcast by one state-sponsored outlet about Munich the evening of July 22, the reporting was calm and measured. The blurry cellphone video of the shooter was shown – the viral clip so common to these tragedies. But the majority of the program consisted of two men in suits conversing about police readiness. The female reporter in the field ended her segment quickly, saying “There’s really nothing more to report.”
Bernd Ulrich, a journalist from Die Zeit (The Times), tweeted that evening: “This solidarity in the streets, this caution on TV, the decency of the police: I love this country.”
“Cautious” appropriately describes the state-sponsored media response to the attack. They were highly resistant to speculation and reluctant to label the motive of the shooter. On the other hand, CNN’s reporting received criticism from a political science professor, Cas Mudde, who posted screen shots of the coverage on Twitter.
The right-wing “Alternative for Germany” party has been downright angry about the cautious reporting. The far right in Germany, just like in the U.S., is arguably fact-resistant. A research project conducted by students at the Cologne School of Journalism found the Alternative for Germany party spokesperson, Frauke Petry, the most likely politician to give false statements to the media.
The representative vice chairman of the Alternative for Germany party, Alexander Gauland, declared on July 27 that Germany should refuse to offer Muslims asylum due to recent events. This declaration has prompted comparisons to Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump. In Germany, where the history of the Holocaust and the right to protection from persecution are taken very seriously, this demand is unconstitutional.
There is a tendency among the far-right to see contradictions in reporting as evidence of conspiracy. Vera Lengsfeld, a center-right politician, wrote a blog post on July 25 titled “The Inconsistencies of Munich.” In this post, she argues that the government is lying about the details of the attack and that “Moslems” are at fault.
Lutz Bachmann, the leader of the nationalistic group PEGIDA (“Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West”), has posted a stream of links on his Facebook profile to news reports about refugees committing crimes: knifings, fights at public pools, sexual assaults. Before Munich, most of these reports were buried in the crime pages. After Munich, they function as proof that refugees are violent and that Chancellor Merkel has damaged German society by granting them refuge.
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Even a left-wing politician, Sahra Wagenknecht, has declared that Chancellor Merkel’s decision to open the borders was a mistake, and that there are problems with integrating refugees into German society.
Despite criticism of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s refugee politics, and even despite the high correlation of refugee status with violence in these attacks, Germany let in more asylum-seekers in 2015 than any other country in Europe. The German Ministry of the Interior recorded 1,091,894 arrivals in 2015. Of those, 476,649 people filed a formal application for asylum in Germany.
Trauma and psychic unrest as causes of terror
That three of the perpetrators were refugees from Muslim-majority countries, and that the German shooter also held Iranian citizenship, makes the association of Muslims with crime difficult to dispel. That all four perpetrators struggled with mental health concerns, and that the perpetrator in Ansbach was suicidal, are lost details obscured by fears of terrorism.
One year ago, a mentally ill man in Ansbach – the site of the suicide bombing on July 24 – killed two elderly people on the street. That attack was twice as deadly as the suicide bombing. It did not generate widespread press attention.
Germany has yet to see large-scale terrorist attacks like those in France or Belgium. The sheer number of refugees and the limited number of attacks ultimately makes the link between refugees and terror weak. The polarization of political opinions about security, however, could threaten Chancellor Merkel’s chances for reelection in 2017.
On July 28, Chancellor Merkel gave a press conference in which she laid out a nine-point plan against terrorism. She refused to yield to her critics, saying she is confident Germans will rise to the occasion: “We can do it, and by the way: over the past eleven months, we’ve already done so very, very much.”