The German defense minister's comments about shooting down hijacked planes set off a burst of political squabbling. But the debate raises important issues, even if it's motivated by political maneuvering, observers say.
Jung said he would give the order to shoot down a passenger plane if necessary
Politicians of all stripes have taken the opportunity to comment on German Defense Minster Franz Josef Jung's statement to Focus magazine on Sunday, Sept. 16, that he would give the command to shoot down a hijacked passenger plane, though such an order has been ruled illegal by Germany's highest court.
Leaders from the opposition Greens have called for his dismissal or at least for public chastisement while his colleagues in Christian Democratic Union (CDU) have tended to back him up by calling for a re-examination of constitutional questions in the face of a modern terrorist threat.
Also on Sunday, Interior Minister Wolfgang Schäuble said the risk of a terror attack remains high in Germany, and that the country is "in the sights of Islamist terrorism."
Berlin senator urges end to 'ghost debate'
Military jets forced a small plane circiling downtown Frankfurt to land safely in 2003
Schäuble told the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung that experts were convinced extremists would one day attack with nuclear weapons.
"Many experts are convinced that it is a question of when, not if," he said.
His comments came in the wake of events of the past weeks, after security officials arrested three men who apparently were planning terror attacks on the US Ramstein air base and other targets. The suspects were not found to be in possession of any radioactive material.
Schäuble has recently called for added power to be given to police in the fight against terrorism, including the right for authorities to conduct covert online searches of terror suspects' computers.
Despite this month's terror arrests, Berlin Interior Senator Erhart Körting called the cacophony of remarks for stricter antiterrorism measures, particularly shooting down hijacked planes, to be a "ghost debate."
The German Constitutional Court's decision in 2006 outlawing such an action made Jung's point moot, he said.
"We should concentrate on what is possible under our constitution," he said in an interview with the DPA news agency.
Real issue more politics than security?
Guido Steinberg, a senior fellow at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, agreed that the media discussion involved more political jockeying ahead of elections in 2009 than any real changes to German security policy.
Schäuble reminded Germans of the terror threat posed to the country
"The debate has more to do with the coalition than with the topic itself," he said. "I think the [CDU politicians] are trying to push the SPD to get into position for the next election. They are provoking them."
The Social Democratic Party (SPD) and CDU have been partners in a "grand coalition" since 2005, when Angela Merkel took Germany's helm as the head of the CDU. Both Jung and Schäuble are CDU members.
That the SPD and Greens were initially responsible for the law they've recently come out against "makes their response right now all the more interesting," Steinberg said. Germany enacted the now-repealed law under former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder after the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks in the United States.
"No pilot would shoot down a plane"
Despite Jung's comments, a defense minister no longer has the right to decide whether to shoot down a hijacked aircraft, Steinberg said.
Observers agreed that pilots would not follow an order to shoot down a passenger plane
"Since the law was deemed unconstitutional, the pilot knows shooting down such a plane would be illegal -- even if he were following orders," Steinberg said. "So now he would be assuming legal responsibility himself. No pilot would do this."
That's the reason the head of the German Federal Armed Forces Association, Bernhard Gertz, warned pilots against pulling the trigger.
"I advise [pilots] not to carry out an order to shoot, no matter who gives it," he said in an interview with the Tagesspeigel newspaper.
A question of ideology
If the minister can't give the order and no pilot would follow it, why raise the issue at all? According to Steinberg, the parties have a long-term ideological motive. The Christian conservatives would like to see the armed forces become involved in fighting terrorism within the country -- a stance the SPD opposes and is currently not permitted by the constitution.
Only a construction flaw kept bombs from exploding on two German trains in August 2006
"This debate over how to fight terrorism has been going on, in earnest, since last winter or last spring," Steinberg said. "It is ideological. The SPD believes in political approaches, the conservatives want the military to play a role."
Germans not convinced of terror threat
Although there is no indication that terrorists are planning major attacks, Steinberg said he thinks Germans are not completely aware of the danger terrorists pose, and added that while Schäuble's warning of an eventual nuclear attack overdramatized the situation, it was not necessarily far off the mark.
Only luck has prevented a terrorist attack in Germany and the possibility of a terror group trying to set off a radiation-carrying "dirty bomb" sometime in the future is not at all unlikely, he said.
But future terrorist activity "is likely to be less sophisticated," Steinberg said. "Attacks on subways, trains and so on. Not futuristic stuff."