On the morning after the Breitscheidplatz Christmas market attack, I received a message from a close relative. Instead of asking whether I was okay, he wrote simply “the police should arrest Merkel for aiding and abetting”.
In a similar vein, within an hour of the attack and in the absence of any evidence, the right-wing AfD’s Marcus Pretzell tweeted “These are Merkel’s dead” in a Trump-style act of provocation. And while most politicians were paying their respects to the dead at the scene of the crime on the following day, the populist AfD insidiously held a candelight vigil outside Angela Merkel’s Chancellery, again attempting to implicate Merkel in the crime.
There is no sign that the attack was carried out by a refugee. The current suspect is an illegal immigrant whose asylum application was rejected. The AfD and cohorts seldom bother to make a distinction between refugees displaced by war, legitimate asylum seekers fleeing persecution in their home country and illegal immigration. It’s the best way to stoke fear of the anonymous Muslim masses supposedly flooding the country. It has to be said again and again: When Germany opened its borders in 2015 to hundreds of thousands of Syrians fleeing war, it was a humanitarian gesture that probably saved many of their lives.
Even if the Christmas market attacker did turn out to be a refugee who entered Germany during that period, this would not retrospectively alter the moral nature of Merkel’s decision to open the borders and the efforts of all those Germans who actively supported her claim of “Wir schaffen das“.
Were there unforeseen risks in Merkel’s historic decision? Of course. Should we have open discussions about those risks? Absolutely. Some pro-immigration, “no borders”, “no person is illegal”-style activists continue to naively believe that mass immigration of people from crisis-torn regions and from very different cultures comes with no problems. Some immigrants and some refugees do commit crimes. We must respond to these crimes in a fair, balanced way that respects the rule of law – and human rights. In other words, Germany must not succumb to the mass incrimination of entire ethnic groups and religions. We’ve “been there, done that”. We know where it leads.
The AfD will enter the Bundestag next autumn, and the Christmas market attack will give them a boost. In parliament, Pretzell and co. will be able to debate these issues openly. Ultimately, I believe they will remain a small party. Most Germans are very aware of their own history and the pitfalls of right-wing populist appeal.
It might be good to have the AfD in positions of responsibility, where they will have to act like grown-ups as opposed to heckling misanthropes. I suspect the AfD won’t get much done in the Bundestag and that their support will eventually wither away. At least their presence will bring polarisation back into German politics after too many years of Merkel’s stolid grand coalition. Ironically, the AfD might weaken Merkel’s CDU enough to allow the left-of-centre parties – SPD, Greens and Die Linke – to form a majority coalition, mirroring the new Berlin R2G government on the national level for the first time. All hope for a progressive future is not lost.
In the long run, I am more afraid of a Europe governed by right-wing populists like the AfD and France’s Front National than of terrorism. The chances of being killed by a terror attack are extremely slim. More people die in bike accidents in Berlin every year. Not that we have to choose between the AfD and terrorism. Does anyone actually believe we would have less terrorism if the populists were in power or if we hadn’t let any refugees in? Of course not. France accepted far fewer Syrian refugees than Germany and has suffered terrorist attacks on a much greater scale – so this is linked not to immigration policy but to Western involvement in the Middle East, and the Islamic State’s war on the West as a whole.
So how should we deal with terrorism like the Berlin Christmas market attack? Terrorism is crime. Let the police deal with it, as they would with any other crime.
The populists, would, if they could, destroy the European Union, the institution that has kept Europe at peace for over half a century. What scares me more than terrorism is the endless chaos, death and destruction that could unleash.