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An Abhorrent Exception

October 26, 2006

German officials have reacted well to the alleged desecration of a skull by German soldiers, says DW's Peter Philipp. He hopes Afghan authorities will follow suit.


"Idiots" usually isn't a word used by German government ministers. That's why Defense Minister Franz Josef Jung's anger became even more apparent when he talked about "idiots" who -- through their actions -- have damaged the Bundeswehr and Germany's image. Many in Germany agree after the publication of an incident, in which German soldiers let themselves be photographed in an abhorrent manner with an as yet unidentified skull.

It's not just concerns about image and not concerns about a resulting increased endangerment of German soldiers in Afghanistan that moves politicians and citizens in Germany. First of all, people are united in their detestation of such errant behavior. What Germany's largest tabloid documented Wednesday with shocking photos clearly contradicts everything that is considered Germany's set of moral values.

Such actions are also punishable. Disturbing the peace of the dead or the desecration of bodies can lead to up to three years in prison. That's what it's important that Bundeswehr and prosecutors have begun their investigation even before the photos were published and that they managed to find those responsible within hours.

It's not only important because the culprits need to be punished and others need to be deterred from following suit. It's even more important to demonstrate that such an incident is not symptomatic, but rather an exception. The statistics on the Bundeswehr's missions abroad proves that: During the last years, about 200,000 soldiers were involved -- without any problems ever happening.

We can be proud that our system of "citizens in uniform" seems to work. But we shouldn't be arrogant: This system means that the Bundeswehr is a cross section of the population, which is not only made up of morally upright people. Black sheep therefore exist in the Bundeswehr just like they do in society. How they're dealt with and how swiftly they're dealt with is important.

So far, politicians and military officials have reacted in the right way to the incident. We don't need admonishments from Washington: People who live in glass houses shouldn't throw stones. One can only hope that the Afghan authorities also do their part in preventing an escalation. People in Kabul know that the Germans came to help -- they were asked to do that, after all. And people in Kabul also know that such an incident is not the standard, but that radicals are more than happy to present it as such.

Peter Philipp is Deutsche Welle's chief correnspondent (win).

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