Berlin Truck Attack Deadly attack sparks security debate in Germany

The country is debating the balance between security and an open society.

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Police patrols the area near the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, the day after a terror attack, in central Berlin, on December 20, 2016 play

Police patrols the area near the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, the day after a terror attack, in central Berlin, on December 20, 2016

(AFP/File)
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Should Germany's popular Christmas markets be ringed with concrete, patrolled by armed soldiers and screened with surveillance cameras?

After a truck ploughed through a crowd of holiday revellers in central Berlin, the country -- having so far been spared large-scale attacks -- is debating the balance between security and an open society.

"This attack could have been prevented if the square had been protected by concrete barriers," said Joachim Krause, head of the Institute for Security Policy at Kiel University, about the attack that killed 12 people at a Berlin Christmas market Monday.

As in Israel, Germany needs "to systematically secure such places," Krause argued in business daily Handelsblatt.

"But in Germany this has been neglected, even though the IS (Islamic State group) is calling for just this kind of attack on so-called soft targets."

Some cities did quickly react to Monday's carnage -- the Christmas markets of Hamburg, Stuttgart and Dresden installed concrete bollards following the Berlin attack.

On the other hand, federal police chief Holger Muench cautioned that, no matter what measures are taken, total security doesn't exist and that "there will always be a risk".

In a similar vein, Berlin mayor Michael Mueller argued that "if we secure everything, if we carry out checks at all the entrances to all public spaces, then that will be at odds with our culture of openness".

Army patrols?

German Chancellor Angela Merkel's cabinet has launched security reforms that broaden video surveillance in public spaces and equip federal police officers with bodycams play

German Chancellor Angela Merkel's cabinet has launched security reforms that broaden video surveillance in public spaces and equip federal police officers with bodycams

(AFP/File)

Nonetheless the debate is, once more, heating up.

Merkel's cabinet on Wednesday passed a package of security bills, still subject to parliamentary approval, that it said were in response to earlier IS attacks in Germany.

They included a measure to broaden video surveillance in public spaces, bodycams for federal police officers and the use of automated devices to read vehicle registration plates.

The CSU, the Bavarian wing of Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative party, is however calling for more sweeping reforms.

It re-launched a campaign it initiated months ago, after less severe attacks claimed by the IS in Germany -- to authorise army troops for domestic security duties.

The Bundeswehr should be able to use its training and equipment to support police and contribute to public safety, argued CSU lawmaker Florian Hahn, in comments to media group RND.

While the sight of armed soldiers on the streets has become common in European countries that have suffered jihadist attacks, such as France and Belgium, it remains taboo in Germany, which in the post-war era set strict constitutional limits on its armed forces.

While men and women in uniform are allowed to, for example, fill sandbags during flood disasters, most Germans would object to the sight of armed troops guarding airports and railway stations.

The government recently moved to allow a first joint police-army exercise. But the country is a long way from authorising army patrols on the streets, with little will among policy-makers to push the point.

And, unlike in France, which has suffered several far deadlier jihadist attacks, no-one in Germany is currently proposing declaring a state of emergency.

A member of Merkel's party, Klaus Bouillon, the interior minister of Saarland state, sparked controversy by speaking of a "state of war" after the Berlin attack -- only to quickly backtrack from what many criticised as a verbal escalation.

First 'real' attack

"The Germans have always given the impression that they believe these attacks only happen to others," wrote Barbara Kunz of the Committee for the Study of Franco-German Relations in an online column for Le Monde.

The country "has certainly experienced attacks in the past" but still "the risk seemed unreal", she argued.

Therefore the Berlin truck attack -- for which the IS claimed responsibility -- meant "for many Germans that the country has experienced its first 'real' Islamist attack".

Police union deputy chief Ernst Walter meanwhile called for more video surveillance and urged an end to "demonising" the technology, in a country that -- after the Nazi and communist dictatorships -- remains suspicious of all kinds of surveillance.

"If politicians keep hiding behind privacy protection and the notion of individual liberty, which complicates our police work, then we will continue to have problems investigating such attacks in future," Walter said on public broadcaster ARD.

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