In January of 2003, a man hijacked a small plane at gunpoint from an airfield in western Germany, took off for Frankfurt and threatened to crash into the European Central Bank building. The man buzzed through the banking district for an hour, coming dangerously close to the numerous high-rises while German fighter jets circled nearby.
The perpetrator turned out to be a psychologically ill German man who wanted to call attention to Judith Resnik, a US astronaut who died in the 1986 explosion of the space shuttle Challenger. But coming just a year and a half after the devastating Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks in the United States, it opened German eyes even wider to potential threats from inside the country.
Almost six years later, many would argue, the threat of unconventional attacks on German soil still hasn't been answered by the government. For years the conservative Christian Democrats (CDU) -- Chancellor Angela Merkel's party -- have agitated for a constitutional amendment that would allow the German military to deploy inside the country in case of a credible threat. Merkel herself called for such an amendment as far back as 2001. But for just as long, most other political parties in Germany have been voicing concerns -- or outright opposition -- to the idea.
Last week the curtain fell on the most recent act of this drama. The amendment proposal "is a qualitative shift in German security structures and as such is not acceptable," Sebastian Edathy, the Social Democratic (SPD) chairman of the Domestic Affairs Committee in German parliament, told SPIEGEL ONLINE on Tuesday. And without SPD support, there is almost no chance that the CDU can muster the three-quarters majority the amendment would need in both the upper and lower houses of German parliament.
The SPD about-face came as something of a surprise. As recently as the beginning of this month, German media had reported that the SPD and CDU, Germany's two largest parties, joined together in Merkel's governing coalition, were in agreement about a constitutional amendment. Specifically, leaders from both parties wanted to adjust Article 35, which carefully prohibits the German military from being deployed domestically except in cases of natural disaster. The plan was to insert a passage allowing the use of the military "when police resources are insufficient."
Leaving aside the legalese, the motivation is clear. Even if Germany has yet to be hit by an Islamist terror attack within its borders, there have been a number of close calls. Most recently, two men with Somali backgrounds were arrested at the Cologne-Bonn airport on suspicion of planning a suicide attack. The two were subsequently released for lack of evidence, but German officials believe they are part of an Islamist scene that has ties to radical groups in faraway Pakistan. In short, the question of the country's readiness to deal with a major terrorist attack remains topical.
But the barrier to military action inside Germany is large and simple: The German constitution, written after World War II, when memories of Nazi militarism were still fresh, clearly identified the nation's armed forces as defensive in nature -- and forbade them from operating within German borders.
But German attitudes have undergone a sea change when it comes to the Bundeswehr, as the country's military is known. After reunification in 1990, a debate erupted over the role of German troops in international missions. It was settled in favor of certain peacekeeping operations, but only temporarily: The 1998 Kosovo War brought the debate to the forefront again. This time the country -- including the formerly pacifist Green Party -- took the plunge, and German fighter pilots were sent to a war zone for the first time since World War II.
A Clear Constitutional Mandate
Now, of course, it's common to see German troops in hotspots around the world. From Afghanistan to the Horn of Africa and Bosnia, thousands of German soldiers participate in international missions.
But the idea of German soldiers operating inside Germany itself remains unpalatable. The Greens are opposed, and so are the business-friendly Free Democrats and the far-left Left Party.
Many of those who resist the idea believe a constitutional amendment is just unnecessary. They argue that an updated interpretation of article 115 -- which determines when and how Germany can defend itself in case of attack -- would be enough. But others, particularly Interior Minister Wolfgang Schäuble, have argued that the military needs a clear constitutional mandate to respond in case of terrorist attack.
"The use of military means must be allowed to defend against attacks that have the quality of a military offensive, even if they aren't carried out by troops aligned to a specific country," Schäuble told SPIEGEL in a 2006 interview. "We have to make the effort to amend the constitution."
Schäuble has been nothing if not persistent in his efforts to keep the debate alive. While a number of his colleagues, including Defense Minister Franz Josef Jung of the CDU and Justice Minister Brigitte Zypries of the SPD, have made noises in favor of allowing domestic military deployment, Schäuble keeps pushing the envelope. He was a backer of a law passed in 2005 to allow the air force to shoot down hijacked planes that pose a threat to populated areas.
The law was a response to the 2003 incident in Frankfurt. But the German high court threw it out in 2006. Schäuble was undeterred. Before the 2006 World Cup in Germany he made a plea to allow the Bundeswehr to help with domestic security. Last year, he generated more headlines by speculating in the press about targeted killings against terrorists. At the G-8 summit in 2006, which took place at Heiligendamm on the northern German coast, Defense Minister Jung even helped Schäuble by mounting a little demonstration: Tornado reconnaissance planes flew low over the camps where G-8 opponents were staying, triggering fierce criticism from across the political spectrum.
Last week the Social Democrats came out decisively against the domestic deployment of the Bundeswehr. The issue is again, for the moment, on ice. Still, with Schäuble's CDU firmly behind the idea, it could easily find its way into next summer's general election campaign.
And Schäuble himself is almost certainly not going to let the issue slide. In 2006 he warned that, when it came to defending Germany against the threat posed by terrorists, he had a long attention span. "I am not someone who manically pursues certain goals just for the sake of a political success," he told SPIEGEL. "I am someone who, if need be, can be very persistent."