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The debate on national security is open

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Fabian von der Mark
January 4, 2017

A serious terror attack plus key elections means Germans are now debating how best to keep their country safe - and rightly so, says DW's Fabian von der Mark.

Silvester 2016 in Köln Bundespolizei
Image: picture-alliance/Geisler-Fotopress

On the first working day of 2017, the head of Germany's Social Democrats (SPD) laid out his concept for national security. On the second day, the interior minister for the Christian Democrats (CDU) did the same, and on the third day, its sister party, the Bavarian CSU, held a closed-door meeting to focus on the same topic. The Greens, the Left Party, the liberal FDP and the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) have also put security at the top of their agendas.

It sounds like the kind of electioneering and actionism that is to be expected in the wake of an attack. But in reality, Germany's political parties are now engaged in a competition for the best national security concept. This is an issue that citizens are truly passionate about. Fear and uncertainty are on the rise, and everyone is looking to see what answers the politicians can provide.

One of the questions up for discussion is video surveillance. Following the attack on the Berlin Christmas market, many people were asking why there were no images of Anis Amri running away from the scene of his crime at Breitscheidplatz? It's because in Germany, public squares are not subject to comprehensive video surveillance. Because in the past, people were more worried about "Big Brother" than fighting crime. But with the SPD and the interior minister now in favor and the FDP, for example, against increased video surveillance, the situation is clear: Citizens will have to weigh the arguments and decide.

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DW's Fabian von der Mark

Ankle bracelets for suspects?

Another question centers on how to treat people who are on the authorities' watch list because they're considered likely to commit an Islamist attack - people such as Amri. The authorities say they're monitoring around 550 such people. Some are subject to continuous monitoring, while others are not. Should certain behavior, such as radical Islamist statements, be criminalized in order for such people to be prosecuted? Should all such people be made to wear ankle bracelets to make it easier to monitor their whereabouts? Or should the police and intelligence services simply receive additional personnel, as is the SPD's plan?

Not all national security questions are so evocative, and yet just as important and, to some extent, controversial. Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière wants to strengthen the federal police force and intelligence service in order to better combat terrorists nationwide.

A total of 17 German police and intelligence offices currently have to exchange information on cases such as that of Amri, who traveled across Germany and Europe. Shouldn't there simply be one German authority to investigate and liaise with European partners? Questions regarding the responsibilities of state level intelligence and police offices come at the expense of each of Germany's federal states. The CSU from Bavaria, for example, will be expected to take a position on proposals to centralize these functions.

Need for simplification

Then there's the treatment of rejected asylum seekers, an issue that was also highlighted in the case of Anis Amri. Should asylum seekers facing deportation be held in deportation centers or even prisons, if they are deemed dangerous? And which countries of origin should be considered safe enough for the return of failed asylum seekers?

The Greens, in particular, have so far always been on the side of asylum seekers, and must now explain their position to voters. The other parties will also have to take a stand. Germans are entitled to a sober security debate about what is feasible, what the costs are, and what the impact on civil liberties will be.

But in addition to a debate, some things just have to be done. Germany should not have to tolerate people who preach messages of hate in backroom mosques and chat rooms, and there are laws to protect against such speech. More investment in prevention is needed at both the state and federal levels to ensure that young people do not become radicalized. On a European level, there needs to be a better exchange of information so that dangerous people remain on the radar.

The German government should up the pressure at the EU level to make sure this happens. The German authorities need the technical capability to monitor secret communication forums, and companies involved in messaging platforms have a duty to cooperate. These are the steps needed to quickly improve our security. The other questions will have to be answered over the course of the election campaign. Those politicians who do not deliver clearly do not take the concerns of the German people seriously.

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