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Burning Cars: Germany Struggles to Quell Arson Problem

By Bruno Schrep

Hundreds of cars have gone up in smoke in Hamburg and Berlin in recent months. But try as they might, officials have been unable to stop the series of arson attacks. Now, it looks as though the perpetrators are no longer just leftist extremists -- but a Hamburg taskforce has made little headway.

Photo Gallery: Searching for the Arsonists of Hamburg Photos
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The young man, awakened by the sounds of the doorbell and loud knocking, comes to the door barefoot and wearing a bathrobe. "Can we come in?" asks Senior Detective Christine O., showing her police I.D. "My place is a mess," says the sleepy-looking 23-year-old, reluctantly making way for the visitors. "Doesn't bother us at all," says Senior Detective Kai K., the second plainclothes officer, as he steps into the apartment. He glances into the tiny kitchen, where dirty dishes are stacked in the sink.

The conversation, which takes place around noon, lasts only a few minutes.

"You do know that a lot of cars are being set on fire," says Christine O. "So what?" "This isn't just property damage; it's also considered a crime." "So?" "We're talking about a prison term, not probation."

The young man looks nervously from one officer to the other. "And why are you telling me this?" he asks, looking bewildered. Christine O. pulls out a report.

"Weren't you stopped by the police the other night?" "Yeah. I had to show them my I.D. That was it." "Why were you out so late?" "I'm a cook. I often work until midnight." "Where?" the inspector asks. "At a restaurant in Poppenbüttel."

As they walk back to their car, the officers agree that the young man is harmless. "He's not setting fires," says Kai K. "Who's next?" Someone in a completely different league, says Christine O., reading from a document in her hand. "He set basements on fire three times, was involved in drug deals and has prior convictions for assault and graffiti vandalism."

Visits and Conversations

Christine O. and Kai K. are officers on a special mission. As part of the police force's youth protection division, they see themselves as both inspectors and social workers. Their goal is to prevent adolescents and young people, through visits and conversations, from committing serious crimes.

Christine O., 44, who used to work as a street cop in Hamburg's St. Georg red-light district, and 50-year-old Kai K., a former police trainer for the United Nations, are among the Hamburg police department's last hopes for coming to grips with a sinister phenomenon: the series of arson attacks on parked cars. Since 2004, more than 1,400 vehicles have gone up in flames within the city limits.

In the current year alone, police had counted more than 330 torched cars by mid-August.

The fear that such arson attacks can create in a city has been evident in Berlin in recent days. Several dozen cars have been set on fire in the German capital, with some of the attacks occurring in traditionally middle-class neighborhoods like Charlottenburg and Zehlendorf. Even the deployment of police helicopters outfitted with thermal imaging cameras have been unable to put a stop to the fires. A dozen cars went up in smoke on Monday night with three more set on fire on Tuesday night.

The malicious attacks have quickly turned into a political issue. Even German Chancellor Angela Merkel has joined the debate, voicing her concern that human lives are being "gambled with cold-bloodedly." And her party, the Christian Democratic Union, which has long been searching for an attractive campaign issue to call its own ahead of Berlin city-state elections in September, has zeroed in on the arson attacks. While Berlin's eternally cheerful Social Democratic (SPD) mayor, Klaus Wowereit, has more or less helplessly called upon citizens to be more vigilant, the CDU plans to use alarming images of burning cars in their campaign posters, along with the slogan: "So That Berlin Doesn't Turn Into London."

No Longer Safe from Vandalism

Arson attacks in the German capital are not new, but they had long been focused on luxury vehicles, and were seen as a tool, primarily of the radical left, in an ideological struggle over coveted residential quarters. Now though, the Berlin arsons are hardly distinguishable from those in Hamburg, where every citizen could be a target, from the owners of expensive sports cars parked on downtown streets to drivers of compact cars and middle-class minivans who live in suburban row-house neighborhoods. Even motorcycles and scooters are no longer safe from vandalism.

"I'm just furious," says a businessman from the Eppendorf neighborhood in Hamburg, after his car was torched on a narrow residential street, together with five other cars. Not only is he furious with the arsonists, who almost always disappear without a trace, but also with the government for its apparent inability to protect his property.

The BMW owner was awakened by the load noise of bursting tires. When he looked down at his convertible from his fourth-floor apartment, the wheel case was burning. By the time he had reached the street, the engine was on fire. Police officers prevented him from recovering valuables from inside the vehicle, citing the risk of explosion.

The arson victim says that, as a genuine liberal, he used to advocate a restrained criminal justice system. But now he has changed his mind, saying that arsonists should be given "at least five years" instead of the standard sentence of five months with probation.

Outside in Their Pajamas

In his particular case, things could actually have been much worse. A tree caught on fire, sending flames shooting up to windows on the third floor. It became so hot inside the building that the businessman's girlfriend couldn't even use the stairwell.

The arson attacks have repeatedly put human lives in danger. In Hamburg's Elmsbüttel neighborhood, local residents and emergency workers inhaled caustic fumes from a car fire in late May, and a married couple and three police officers suffered critical smoke poisoning. In early July, flames from another car fire, this time in the city's Lokstedt neighborhood, spread to a nearby apartment building, forcing tenants to run outside in their pajamas.

"Eventually, there will be casualties," says Andreas Lohmeyer, 49, head of the Hamburg police department's crime-fighting division. He is under enormous pressure. The nearly impossible task of protecting 4,000 kilometers of city streets and about 720,000 registered vehicles from vandalism is beginning to take its toll.

Lohmeyer is one of those responsible for one of the biggest police operations in Hamburg history. Already, more officers have been assigned to fighting the arsonists than were deployed to hunt for RAF terrorists. As such, the costs of the current operation are high.

Yet it has been relatively unsuccessful, even when, more than a year ago, a special commission dubbed "Florian" was sending up to 200 uniformed and plainclothes police officers into the streets every night, and when helicopters were circling over the city and entire districts were being combed for would-be arsonists. Ten cars were even set on fire in the night preceding a conference of state interior ministers.

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