Does Germany need color-coded security? | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 22.11.2010
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Does Germany need color-coded security?

Experts disagree on the merits of terror alert levels as Germany steps up security over concerns of a possible Islamist attack. The country does not have a warning system like those in the UK and the US.

A police officer close to a security fence in front of the Reichstag building,

Battening down the hatches at the Reichstag

One of Germany's most popular tourist attractions, the glass dome of the Reichstag in Berlin, was closed to tourists on Monday following media reports of a plot by Islamist extremists to attack the German parliament building. In several incidents across Germany these past days, police cordoned off abandoned packages after what turned out to be false alarms.

On Sunday, Chancellor Angela Merkel moved to reassure the population, telling the Bild am Sonntag newspaper that security forces were doing everything in their power to protect the country, just days after the interior minister announced there was a "new security situation" in Germany.

It is high time authorities started considering adopting a system of terror warning levels in Germany, Philipp Holtmann, a terrorism expert at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) told Deutsche Welle.

Code red?

"If we look at the situation we are confronted with right now, we are on the borderline between panicking and hysteria [on the one hand] and absolute negligence of the situation [on the other]; people do not know how to estimate the threat that really exists," he said.

Terror alert levels would make it much easier for the population to deal with the threats, Holtmann said, because there would be more clarity than there is now: "Every hour, we have new reports in the media that give us different scenarios, that tell us different confusing and often contradicting facts, and it would be much easier for the population if there was a clear terror warning alert system."

packed pedestrian street in Cologne

Go about your daily life, experts say

People can not prevent terrorism, Holtmann said, but according to a warning system, people could raise or lower their awareness for things going on around them. They should continue to keep on living their normal lives but be more alert: "There is no recipe how to do this. It is not this bag or this person, this language or this culture that needs to be watched, it's a general awareness," he said.

In the US, the Homeland Security Advisory System codes threat levels from yellow, or elevated, to red, or severe and accordingly issues warnings to the public. Britain has a system of five threat levels ranging from low to critical.

Disagreement over step-by-step warning systems

George Kassimeris, a senior research fellow in Conflict and Terrorism at the University of Wolverhampton in the UK, said Germany would be ill-advised in following the British and US terror alert example.

The systems made sense in theory, he told Deutsche Welle, but in practice they could be counterproductive: "With all these different levels and colors, the end result is a certain degree of panic, confusion and anxiety among the population because the population are not in possession of the knowledge and information the intelligence services are when they issue all these different warnings."

two German police from behind

Are the police prepared?

The intelligence services, the British expert said, would never notify the public in advance of an imminent terror threat because if they did, they would be giving the game away to the terrorists.

"Ordinary people can do absolutely nothing about it"

Kassimeris said that at first, people heed terror warnings, but at some point, they stop paying attention because they make no difference to their lives.

Terrorism has become a part of our lives, Kassimeris said, and it is bound to continue to be a part of our lives because there will always be people who resort to violence to advance their fanatical beliefs.

"The population cannot possibly be prepared," according to Kassimeris -- but the intelligence and security agencies can. The debate should not be about whether the public was prepared , he said, but whether the security services who are responsible for protecting people's safety are prepared to the very maximum to deal with the threat.

Author: Dagmar Breitenbach
Editor: Michael Lawton

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