Introductory statement on 19 January 2017 on the attack at Breitscheidplatz
When we said goodbye at the end of the final sitting week in December before the Christmas break, our wishes to each other were for a relaxing Christmas and a more peaceful New Year. The shocking terror attack on the Christmas market at Breitscheidplatz in Berlin destroyed these hopes in an appalling way.
As had previously taken place in Nice, an Islamic terrorist used a lorry as a lethal weapon against countless pedestrians. The aim was not to hit any individual in particular, but as many as possible instead. Six women and six men, standing at the foot of the Memorial Church enjoying the merry atmosphere of the run up to Christmas, had their lives brutally cut short. In addition to seven Germans, people from Poland, Italy, Ukraine, the Czech Republic and Israel were also among the dead – people who had been working in Berlin, who were visiting our capital or who had found a new home here. Dozens more from around the world were injured in the attack, in some cases severely. Many of them now have long fights ahead of them on the road to recovering both physically and psychologically. This goes too for the eye witnesses and the many helpers, to whom we offer our sincerest thanks for their actions at the scene and for their care of the victims and the survivors.
It is scarcely avoidable, but still hard to accept that in the manner in which such events are viewed by the media and the public, the perpetrator often receives far greater attention than those that he killed. We all know the face of the murderer of Breitscheidplatz, we have seen it virtually on a daily basis for weeks in newspapers, online and on television, and we know his life story down to the very details. Little is known about the victims, in contrast. Of course this is not appropriate, but it makes clear the vastly different expectations and needs that are to be catered to. We must, above all, absolutely respect the wish of those grieving loved ones for privacy and to be left, not alone, but rather in peace with their grief – even in light of the understandable needs of the media and the public. Apart from this, there can be no objection to the fact that in the aftermath of terrible events such as this, there are immediate calls for matters to be dealt with as quickly as possible and to draw conclusions that are as concrete as possible, and this certainly does not reflect a lack of sympathy. The candles and flowers laid at the scene are a clear expression of the condolences conveyed by the general population to those suffering.
For the victims’ families, partners and friends, everything changed within a few seconds; plans, wishes, hopes were destroyed from one moment to the next. The pain of those left behind is immeasurable, at most we can only imagine it, but we share their deep sadness. That is what we expressed the day after the attack in the touching memorial service in Berlin’s Memorial Church, attended by the Head of State, the leaders of our constitutional bodies, many Members of the Bundestag and the federal government, along with numerous representatives of our society. With an impressive interreligious prayer, representatives of religious communities demonstrated that they stand shoulder to shoulder in the face of terrorist violence.
I wish to thank the Federal President for being with us this morning and providing our gesture of remembrance here in the German Bundestag with particular reverence.
People around the world mourn with us. We have been touched and bolstered by the numerous messages of condolence and expressions of sympathy. We are grateful, among many others, to our friends in France, who conveyed their sympathies with a minute’s silence for the victims in the Assemblée Nationale. Like the French, who have suffered the results of Islamic terror on multiple occasions, our European neighbours and partners around the world know that they can fall victim at any time. We are all targets, we are all affected. This was shown in the early days of this year by the murderous attack on people celebrating the New Year in Istanbul, the devastating bomb attack on a market in Baghdad and yet another lorry attack on soldiers in Jerusalem. We feel a connection with the victims of this inhuman brutality. They are a reminder that the global threat of terrorism can only be combatted effectively together – and that is why we must finally reach effective security policy cooperation in Europe and beyond.
Terror aims to shake democratic societies to their core, to cripple and destabilise them. The terrorists did not achieve this goal in Germany. The population reacted remarkably calmly to the attack. In doing so, they impressively demonstrated that they do not want to have their lives dictated by threats and by fear.
And yet the terror threat inevitably has an impact on our lives, we feel it at every security check and with the increased need for protection. Citizens rightly expect the state and its institutions to protect them and take provisions against potential threats; it must prove its ability to act even and especially in the face of Islamic terror. This is an undisputed principle, but one that proves difficult in practice.
Freedom needs security if it is to be reliable. And security needs freedom, if it is not to break down into repression. That is why we should not overwhelm the state with our demands – and by no means can we pretend to be able to counteract an unpredictable opponent with what appear to be simple solutions. Countries who do not have freedom, or who have vastly restricted this in the name of security, certainly do not offer better protection. The terrifying series of attacks in Turkey in recent months show that security cannot be guaranteed even in a country where the government operates in a state of emergency and where executive authority continues to be expanded at the cost of the principles of freedom and the rule of law. Authoritarian regimes have been proved not to be any safer, they obtain the illusion of increased protection against terror and violence by denying inalienable civil liberties.
Free society is not powerless, however, it can and must defend itself. Our state cannot rule out risk, but security authorities can limit these using the constitutional means available to them.
In many cases there have been successful operations to prevent attacks in our country. Nevertheless, following the devastating attack on Breitscheidplatz, we are left with urgent questions to which there are no conclusive answers. The discovery that the perpetrator, despite being considered a potential threat and being known to the authorities, was – equipped with numerous false identities – able to strike unimpeded forces us to reassess the security architecture of our country. The state under rule of law itself did not fail, instead it did not exhaust the means available to it. We need to resolve organisational errors and structural weaknesses and draw the relevant consequences – at all levels of government and in concert with all departments and authorities. Where legislative input is required, we as parliamentarians have a duty – especially in instances where there is not only a lack of enforcement of laws that have long been in place. Security authorities and the judiciary system must be put in a position where they are able to apply existing laws consistently.
To achieve this, we must have uncomfortable debates, during which we can and should disagree strongly with each other. We have already started in the relevant Bundestag bodies as well as the plenary. No-one should mistake this for weakness or disparage it as indecision. It is the particular strength of our embattled democracy that we as a society wrestle with how we wish to maintain the difficult balance between the demand for security and the promise of freedom.
The fact that there is particularly intensive debate on this both between the parties and within the parties must also be possible in an election year. Yet the necessary confrontation with the topic cannot take place at the cost of people who as a result of their background or their religion are held liable for the terrorist violence that they themselves have fled in many cases.
The murderer of Breitscheidplatz considered himself to be Muslim, a soldier of the Islamic State – and he claimed to be a refugee. We cannot overlook these facts – especially as we are committed to religious diversity, an outward-looking society and to our humanitarian obligations.
As a country that understands religious freedom as a human right and guarantees it as such, and as a society in which Christians, Jews, Muslims and people of no religion live together, we can and we must push for Muslims to examine their religion and the fatal connection between belief and fanatic violence. The chairman of the Central Council of Muslims in Germany provided an example of this in his statement following the attack in Berlin. This, too, deserves respect and recognition.
We are not fighting Islam, but fanaticism; not religion, but fundamentalism – this applies to the perception of terror in our country no differently than it did following the attacks on our European neighbours. Wherever Islamist ideas are spread, we must fight this with the full force provided by the rule of law. Terrorism is never religious, terrorism is political – and our response must also be political.
It is perfidious that violent Islamists use the suffering of others to sneak into our country and cause unrest and violence – and yet it follows the terrorist logic that aims to divide our society. We will not permit this and we want to protect those seeking refuge with us from it, which gives us all the more reason to implement more consistent checks than before on who enters our country. Of those who stay here, we demand that they follow our laws and our legal norms unconditionally.
last week brought the death of Roman Herzog, who we will honour with a memorial service next Tuesday in the Berlin Cathedral. Twenty years ago, our former Federal President, who served this country in a number of leading offices, called for plain language in his unforgotten Berlin speech in 1997 – and such language is also required today: “Leaders – no matter whom they are leading – must be candid with those who follow them, even when it is an unpleasant task.” At another point, he emphasised: “Responsibility is the unavoidable consequence of freedom”.
We are free and we will remain free – as long as we take responsibility for our own affairs.
Please stand for a moment’s silence in remembrance of the victims and as a sign of our sympathy for their families and friends.