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Jul 25, 2016

The Guardian | Opinion | Germany: After Attacks, Can Germany Keep Calm and Carry ON ? by Lena Jakat

Lena Jakat

In frightening times, the mantra “this cannot happen here” helps us all cope with everyday life. In Munich, that outlook has always made sense. The city is repeatedly ranked among the safest in Germany; in 2012, Munich’s mayor, Christian Ude, called it one of the safest big city in Europe.
Violent crime rates, poverty and unemployment are low. Bavaria’s strong police presence and the strict rule of law have a reputation of their own. People in Munich are more scared of being stopped by the police for riding through a red light on their bicycle than they are of falling victim to crime. Munich is the capital of “this cannot happen here”.
On Friday night, everything changed. The city centre was packed with tourists and shoppers, with 10,000 people attending a street festival celebrating 500 years of Bavarian beer. Reports of shots being fired in a shopping mall in the northern part of Munich were quickly followed by reports of violent incidents elsewhere in the city centre. Those were unverified reports – false reports, as it turned out later. These reports of shootings, of attackers with heavy guns on the run, spread rapidly over social media.
People were frightened and left the central squares; they started running. Shops closed their doors and turned off the lights. All public transport ceased, police responded to the reports with a massive operation. Downtown was flooded with police cars, helicopters hovering in the sky. Special forces ordered people to get inside. Many were under lockdown in restaurants and offices, for hours. It was a moment of fright and panic in the city; a panic, as it would turn out later, that left a number of people hurt.
A student with mental health problems had opened fire in a shopping mall, killing nine people, most of them teenagers – and himself. The attack had no connections to terrorism whatsoever. Nevertheless, the panic on Friday, along with the enormous police response, shows that somewhere beneath the surface, deep down, the sense that nothing bad can happen here has suffered since the start of this year.
At 10.50pm on New Year’s Eve in Munich, when police issued a warning about a potential terror attack, there was no panic. People were asked to avoid large crowds. Two of the main train stations were evacuated, and heavily armed police poured in. Public transport in the suburbs was down for a couple hours.
Police were investigating claims about five to seven suspects who were planning a suicide attack at midnight. The people of Munich were celebrating the New Year as they always do: partying outside, burning fireworks in the streets and on the bridges over the river Isar. There was no panic, no exodus of the crowds from the city centre. This was not a night people spent staring at the news, faces lit up by their phone screens. Many people weren’t even aware of the alert; those who were felt safe nonetheless. Safe as always. The next day, the first day of 2016, the discussions already focused on the police, and if they had overreacted. The alleged terror plot could never be substantiated.
Since then, people have been attacked in Brussels and Orlando, and Munich felt safe. People died in Istanbul and Nice, and Munich remained the city of “this cannot happen here”. The illusion remained intact. Last Monday, a 17-year-old refugee attacked passengers on a train with an axe and a knife, in Würzburg, Bavaria. And then, on Friday, police proclaimed “terror mode” in the city. Munich’s promise of security was suddenly in question.
Two days after the attack, a sea of flowers had formed at the scene of the shooting. Thousands came to the mall to mourn the dead. Weekend events were cancelled. But in the centre, the city had recomposed itself. Tourists were back in the streets. The riverbanks were packed with sun seekers, the beer gardens open. People seemed determined to go on, to believe in the promise of security. This attitude, so aptly dubbed “Je suis au biergarten” by a colleague, might not be very political. But immediately after the attack, it seemed to work.
Bavaria is famous for its Gemütlichkeit. This cliche, which describes a relaxed, sociable, indulgent way of life, also translates for Munich – though in more of a modern, big city kind of way. Munich is a city of leisure, especially in summer. Life takes place outside: people are sipping Italian drinks or driving their convertibles through the expensive old city. Locals are enjoying the sun in the Englischer Garten and on the banks of the river. Beer gardens are packed, there are street festivals, concerts, markets and movies to be enjoyed in the open air. Munich is proud of its attractive lifestyle, and the people are determined to live it.
That is, until Monday morning, when Munich woke up to the news that a suicide attacker had detonated a bomb, once again in Bavaria, this time in Ansbach, 200km (125 miles) north of Munich. Twelve people were injured, three heavily wounded. The bomb exploded close to a music festival, after the Syrian attacker was turned away at the festival entrance. Some 2,500 people were attending the event in Ansbach’s Old City. Ansbach is a quiet town of 40,000. A peaceful place. Another place that believed “this cannot happen here”.
In Munich, the news from Ansbach is another blow to the public’s trust in security. People have to ask themselves if this promise of resilience (if it ever existed) is more than an illusion, and perhaps start looking for a new coping strategy. How much more can the Munich mantra take?