Terrorism and the law: in Germany

Posted in Terrorism | 16-Jul-07 | Source: International Herald Tribune

German Interior Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble

Germany has so far escaped the latest wave of terrorism suffered by the United States, Britain and Spain - but not by much. Some of the terrorists who attacked the United States on Sept. 11, 2001, used the German city of Hamburg as a base. Last July, would-be terrorists left deadly suitcase bombs on a German passenger train, but fortunately they failed to explode.

Following Britain's recent car-bomb incidents, Germany's interior minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, has proposed a range of antiterrorist measures that would alter the country's careful balance between civil liberties and government police powers. Some of his ideas, like preventive detention and government-ordered assassinations of terrorists abroad, are chilling. Others, like new laws against using the Internet to promote terrorism and providing a legal basis for the government to shoot down a hijacked airplane, may be worth considering.

Steps of this magnitude need to be seriously debated, something the U.S. Congress failed to do when the Bush administration sought far-reaching legal changes after the 2001 attacks. Clearly, Germany, like other Western democracies, needs to refine and update its legal tools for detecting and heading off terrorist threats. But it needs to proceed carefully. Panicky and ill-considered laws can undermine democracy as effectively as catastrophic terrorist attacks. One clear lesson of the Bush administration's abuses is that any secret surveillance powers granted to the German government must be subject to court oversight and review.

Germany's debate is colored by its own history. The parents and grandparents of today's German politicians grew up in Hitler's Reich. Some of those politicians, including Chancellor Angela Merkel, themselves grew up in the East German police state. These remembered traumas make today's Germans unusually sensitive to government incursions on civil liberties.

That is no bad thing. America's legal responses to Sept. 11 would probably have been wiser and done less damage to America's constitutional system and international reputation if the Bush administration had had to deal with a Congress and a voting public more attentive to the dangers of abusive and unchecked governmental powers.