On Monday night the German public voted on a contentious air safety issue: should soldiers be allowed to shoot down passenger planes to save more people on the ground? The question was posed in a movie, not a referendum.
It's a nightmare scenario: terrorists hijack a commercial airliner with 164 people on board and threaten to crash it into a soccer stadium filled with 70,000 fans. After several unsuccessful tries to force the plane to land, a German soldier finally shoots it down, killing everyone on board but saving tens of thousands of other lives.
That was the - fictional - jump-off point for the movie "Terror - Your Verdict," which aired in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic on Monday night. The film is based on a play by German crime writer and defense attorney Ferdinand von Schirach. It covers the trial of Lars Koch, the jet pilot who made the fateful decision to shoot down the passenger plane, played in the TV movie by popular German actor Florian David Fitz. Audiences see his witness statement and hear impassioned speeches from the defense and the prosecution.
Here's the movie's trailer in German:
The twist comes at the end: just like the theater audiences who went to see "Terror," TV viewers got to vote on the verdict last night. After the summations, they could call in or vote online - and the results were overwhelmingly clear. In Germany, 86.9 percent of participants voted for innocent, saying that the soldier had made the right decision. Only 13.1 percent voted for guilty and were in favor of Koch going to prison for murder.
"I think the unusual format [of a TV movie whose ending is left up to the viewers] worked extremely well," Stefan Hansen from the Institute of Security Policy at the University of Kiel told Deutsche Welle. "This social issue deals with common values and the safety of the population, so it's extremely important that our society looks into this topic and deliberates it - and with mass media you reach more people than in any other way."
Contentious air safety law
The question of what to do with a hijacked airplane has been on the German political agenda for 15 years. After the attacks of September 11, 2001, German politicians wanted a law that protected Germany from similar events where terrorists used commercial airplanes as weapons. The "Luftsicherheitsgesetz," or air safety law, was passed in early 2005. In Article 14, it said that as a last resort, the Bundeswehr could shoot down a passenger plane if that was the only way to save more lives in the event of a terrorist attack.
What would happen if terrorists actually hijacked a German passenger plane? Legally, the Bundeswehr wouldn't be allowed to shoot it down.
But just a year later, Germany's highest court, the Constitutional Court, deemed this specific article invalid because it violated the rule that the Bundeswehr should never take action inside of Germany.
The politicians who had filed the complaint against the air safety law also said weighing human lives against each other - the lives of the people on the plane versus those that could be saved on the ground - would demean human dignity. This in turn would violate the German Constitution, whose first article is "Human dignity shall be inviolable. To respect and protect it shall be the duty of all state authority."
Air safety still a hot-button issue
So shooting down a plane like fictional soldier Lars Koch did in the "Terror" movie and play is clearly illegal - and yet almost 87 percent of viewers were sympathetic to his course of action. Importantly, results in Austria and Switzerland were similarly clear.
One of those in favor of "innocent" is Germany's former defense minister Franz-Josef Jung. The conservative politician from Angela Merkel's CDU has previously said that he would still order the shooting of a hijacked plane even though the Constitutional Court declared this illegal if it was the only way to keep more civilians safe. He reaffirmed that position in a discussion public broadcaster ARD aired after the movie.
6.31 million Germans watched that discussion - an enormous number for a political talk show, which shows that the topic is still very much relevant. The "Terror" movie even attracted 6.88 million viewers, a number that is much higher than what weeknight programming usually achieves in Germany. One thing that makes the issue so interesting is its ambiguity.
"There is no right or wrong with this question," Hansen said. "Both perspectives have good rational and moral arguments." Hansen added that he didn't see the movie's jet pilot as guilty since he acted selflessly and wanted to protect the lives and the dignity of the thousands of people in the soccer stadium.
'The Constitution is smarter than us'
Former jet pilot Thomas Wassermann also doesn't blame fictional pilot Lars Koch. Wassermann says it is a travesty that politicians deserted jet pilots with the shoot-or-don't-shoot decision after the Constitutional Court had nixed article 14 of the air safety law. He believes that the law as it stands today does not reflect the terrorism threat Germany faces in 2016.
"The Constitution wasn't carved into a mountain by God," Wassermann said.
Former German interior minister Gerhart Baum from the liberal FDP opposes this idea. He was among those who had complained about the original air safety law in 2005 and fought hard to make it illegal to shoot planes out of the sky to save other innocent lives.
Baum was certain in his belief that the fictional pilot in "Terror" was guilty.
"The Constitution is smarter than us," the former interior minister said. "We should stick to it." The German public obviously doesn't agree with him.