December 21, 2016
A culture of denial
As we predicted yesterday, the discussion about the terror attack in Berlin has turned political very quickly, with some commentators now wondering openly whether this might cost Angela Merkel the elections.
This is at its most fundamental a story about denial. The German establishment, and their friends in the media, are in denial that Merkel's government catastrophically mishandled the refugee crisis, in a way that this is now becoming increasingly apparent with a terrorist still at large in the streets of Berlin. And the German police and security services are in denial that they are facing an elevated threat during an election year.
The German media have been absolutely awful in their coverage of the attacks. You found more useful information in Corriere della Sera and other European media. However, there were two perceptive commentaries in Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, both of which go to the core what is happening in Germany. Berthold Kohler, the paper’s political editor, says this terror attack is to some extent self-inflicted. By opening the borders without checks, the German government brought about a generalised loss of control which is now felt among the core electorate of both coalition parties. The New Year's Eve attacks by North African immigrants on women outside Cologne train station - with the police refusing to get involved for political reasons - was a warning shot. The attacks in Berlin are much more serious. The following is our translation:
“The policy establishment and the churches are reacting now as they did then with the usual reflex that says: One should never subject refugees or Muslims to a general suspicion. But who is doing this? The progressive polarisation of society and the radicalisation of the debate will only be contained if you stop euphemisms and denials at a point when you can no longer credibly distort the facts. This is what drives people who are themselves not radical extremists to the populists.”
We noted that a reader complained yesterday that we criticised the German press for failing to call the terror attack a terror attack - and for pretending that this may have just been an accident. We stick by these criticisms because it is not the job of journalists to wait until they get official confirmation but to find out what is happening. The fact that this was a terror attack was established very quickly. If one had listened to eyewitness accounts in foreign media on the night of the attacks - which were not broadcast in the German mainstream media - there would have been no doubt. Just as there was no doubt in Nice after the attacks on July 14. This is what Kohler is talking about - a culture of denial. German journalists are afraid of reporting a terror attack, fearing that the act of the reporting might get people to draw the wrong conclusions and form racial or religious prejudice.
FAZ had another perceptive commentary this morning by Michael Hanfeld, who writes about the "accident that turned out to be an attack". He said the silence of the German media was so penetrating that night that it made your head shake. He noted that CNN, Al Jazeera, and a couple of German private stations, got the news out pretty quickly with the correct interpretation, while the German public broadcasters reacted with an absurd degree of calm. The attitude was one of wait-and-see. They were talking endlessly about speculation, admonishing viewers that it was wrong to speculate, as it would only produce disinformation. Even worse, Berlin’s mayor thanked the media the next day for having interpreted the facts correctly. Probably the single most absurd case of denial is a Twitter hashtag #katzenstattspekulationen where readers exchange pictures of their cats so they don’t have to occupy their minds with needless speculation about what might have happened in Berlin.
We are focusing on these aspects of the story because they tell us that German society is emotionally not equipped to deal with what is happening. And this constitutes a massive factor of uncertainty that will dominate Germany politics during the election year. Merkel is right in one respect: the elections will be no cakewalk for her.