Friday, 26 November 2010

Germany Jumps at its Own Shadow

The news that Germany is officially on alert for terrorist attacks has left me with an overwhelming sense of deja-vu. I feel like I have seen this film before, in fact, I know that I have. I have seen it so many times that I know its plotline inside and out. If it were a movie, I would call it "The Shadow of Terror".

There are two reasons why I liken Germany's current terrorism threat to a film. For one thing, it has been played out almost entirely onscreen in the televised media. Since few Germans have ever had direct experience of 'terrorists', they remain as unreal as characters in a film. The second reason why I liken the terror alert to a film is because it just sounds, well, scripted. I have lived in three countries now and they have all gone through a similar 'terrorism alert'. Each time, events have unfolded in a nearly-identical way.

In Act One of "The Shadow of Terror", the country's government receives a tip-off about an impending terror attack. The tip-off comes from an informant who is working within a terror cell with Al Quaida links. Exact details of the informant, the cell and the attack itself are never revealed, since doing so would supposedly compromise both the informant's safety and/or national security. Unnamed individuals are subsequently arrested by the police and/or military, acting on the informant's tip-off. These individuals are alleged to be part of the same supposed cell as the informant. They are held for a long time without charge or trial, while investigations are made in order to gather evidence against them.

At this point, the audience invariably starts complaining of continuity problems in the script. They protest that the police should have to investigate and gather hard evidence against a suspect before they arrest him. What they don't know is in Act Two, their country's human rights legislation will be modified overnight in order to enable random stop-searches, arrests without due cause, trials without a jury, house arrests, light torture and other practices more commonly associated with totalitarian regimes. These days, it seems that the tenets of Western democracy can be rewritten just like a tract of pulp fiction, to progress an ill-constructed media plotline. If you don't believe me, just ask the citizens of the other countries I've lived in, Canada and England. In both countries, civil liberties have been severely eroded by government overreaction to vague 'terror threats' like this one.

In Canada and England the seat of government is closed to the public, citizens' phone conversations and emails are routinely logged, and armed police are often seen stationed in highly public positions around the capital city. Germany too is heading in the same direction. Its government claims that these measures help to deter terrorists from engaging in violent activities but they just end up deterring normal people from their everyday activites, instead. The UK Terrorism Act failed to prevent the 7/7 tube bombings, and recent changes to it have resulted in over 100,000 people being stopped and searched without due cause. Since no charges against these people were subsequently laid, it can be argued that the only thing the Terrorism Act has changed in the UK is that it has made innocent people unnecessarily fearful of the police. They are right to question whether or not this is the real aim of counterterrorism measures.

For nearly 10 years, "The Shadow of Terror" has been like box-office gold to wannabe dictators in the English-speaking world. By now, the populations of North America and Great Britain are even getting a little bit bored of the terror-panic routine, so its creators have done the same thing that filmmakers have always done with English-language blockbusters: they've exported it to Europe (albeit several years late). The German government may be reading a dog-eared script, crudely translated from the original American version but aside from that, its current terror alert is identical to those staged by Bush, Harper and Blair. Only the names of the people and the cities have been changed.

When I visited some Christmas markets in Berlin the other night, they were pretty empty. The sounds in the streets were muted by something more than the recent snowfall. The atmosphere reminded me a bit of Soho before the nailbomber was apprehended... which is funny, because there haven't been any nailbombings in Berlin. Still, it seems like a good idea to avoid making any sudden moves around the police with the machine guns. One wouldn't want to end up like Jean Charles de Menezes, the Brazilian worker who was 'accidentally' shot by police after the 7/7 tube bombings. There haven't been any U-bahn bombings in Berlin, of course, but how are the police to know that you're not thinking of planning one? In fact, just to be on the safe side, one should probably avoid being unique, radical or disorderly in public until this whole terror thing blows over (probably around the year 2210). Otherwise, one might risk being lumped in with all the potential terrorists who are suspected of plotting an attack in Berlin.

The point I'm trying to make here is this jumpy authorities pose a far greater danger to the public than terrorism ever will. Take it from someone who has seen this film twice before...

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