Letter From Berlin Is Germany Ready for Targeted Killings?

For years, Interior Minister Wolfgang Schäuble has been trying to jack up German domestic security in the face of a growing terror threat to the country. These days, the rest of the country seem to be listening.

The discussion on how best to combat the danger of terror attacks in Germany has almost reached the status of a ritual: Interior Minister Wolfgang Schäuble calls for security forces to be granted greater leeway in investigating and going after suspected terrorists; the opposition cries foul and indignantly accuses Schäuble of disregarding the German constitution; Schäuble weathers the media storm; and a couple months later he starts the process all over again.

This weekend was no different. In an interview with SPIEGEL magazine  published Monday, Schäuble suggested that Germany should take a close look at what the country's constitution might have to say about targeted killings of terror suspects. He also indicated an interest in preventative imprisonment of terror suspects.

"The fight against international terrorism cannot be mastered by the classic methods of the police, in any case," Schäuble, from Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative Christian Democratic Union party, said in the interview. "If for example potential terrorists, so-called 'endangerers,' cannot be extradited -- what do we do with them? One could, for example, create a law making conspiracy a criminal offense, as the United States has done. But the other question is: Can one treat such (potential terrorists) like combatants and detain them?"

'On the Wrong Track'

Reaction was swift. On Monday, Social Democratic Party (SPD) floor leader Peter Struck blasted Schäuble's suggestion that Germany's constitution might be changed to allow security personnel a freer hand in combating terror. Struck took particular issue with Schäuble's continued urging, voiced yet again in the interview, to free up the German military for domestic security deployments.

"That has no place in our coalition," Struck said, in reference to Germany's governing coalition which pairs Schäuble's conservatives with the SPD. "We will confront efforts aimed at such a constitutional amendment with a clear No. The chancellor knows that."

Struck wasn't the only politician unhappy with Schäuble's most recent foray into the headlines. SPD General Secretary Hubertus Heil said on Monday: "Those who think they can limit rights to freedom in this country are on the wrong track." A number of opposition politicians have also joined the chorus of dismay.

Nevertheless, for all the shocked indignation, Schäuble has been willing to begin, and almost single-handedly sustain, a conversation that many in Germany have been all too happy to ignore for years: How can a constitutional state -- and one burdened with myriad historical taboos -- adequately combat terrorism?

While many in Germany, and consequently many in the German government, are happy to point an accusing finger at the seemingly excessive measures taken by US President George W. Bush's administration in Washington, Schäuble has been wondering how much of what the Americans are doing might be suitable for German security.

With foiled terror attacks in Great Britain and an increase in the number of warnings about attacks in Germany, the debate has once again gained steam. Not that Germany has completely ignored the threat of terror. In the years following the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, Berlin changed a number of laws to tighten up security, many of them pushed through by the center-left government headed up by then Chancellor Gerhard Schröder.

Balance between Security and Personal Freedoms

But those changes took place against the background of Germany's principled stand against Bush's invasion of Iraq and a general suspicion of US terror containment policy. While that suspicion remains anchored in the German populace, Merkel's government seems more willing to examine legal changes that might tip the delicate balance between security and personal freedoms.

Recently, Chancellor Merkel, having characteristically allowed Schäuble to test the waters on his own first, has been wading into the debate. Following the failed attack on Glasgow airport just over a week ago, Merkel said, "The old separation between domestic and international security is outdated. We have to completely change our thinking."

As it happens, the change in thinking has, at least when it comes to laws formulated by Schäuble's Interior Ministry, already taken place. For months, a series of debates have been simmering just below the surface in Germany that, when taken together, point to a major shift in the way Berlin is approaching the post Sept. 11 world.

Top on the list this spring and summer has been an ongoing mudslinging affair regarding just how deep the German state can look into the computers of private users. The proposal, supported by Schäuble, calls for granting police and security personnel authorization to carry out remote searches of terror suspects' computers without their knowledge. The German high court has clear concerns about such a law. But Schäuble has said he would like to amend article 13 of the German constitution, which deals with privacy of the home.

Other controversial proposals have centered around using Germany's electronic highway toll system to track the movements of potential radicals, and the legality of "dragnet" raids, in which police search through entire databases looking for suspicious characteristics.

Targeted Killings?

But by far the greatest question currently facing Germans is where the line should be drawn between domestic security forces and the army -- and by extension, where peace ends and war begins. Targeted killings as mentioned by Schäuble are only one part of the question. Also at stake is the legality of shooting down an airplane hijacked by terrorists, as is the deployment of German troops on security missions within the country's borders, currently forbidden by the constitution.

Schäuble has been clear on what he would like to see happen. "Whoever wants to preserve freedom has to act when social circumstances have changed," he said in the weekend interview. "We no longer live in the world of 1949."

The reference is clear. Authored in the years immediately following the end of World War II, Germany wanted a constitution which clearly identified the country's armed forces as defensive in nature and which forbade the military -- with a few, strictly defined exceptions -- from security missions inside Germany's borders. But what was a reaction to Nazi-era excesses is now seen by many as preventing German authorities from having the kind of flexibility needed to fight the myriad threats posed by terrorism.

Schäuble began the discussion about using Bundeswehr soldiers to amp up domestic security prior to the football World Cup tournament, held in Germany in the summer of 2006. Even then, it became clear that his proposal was not a popular one. More recently, revelations that German Torpedo reconnaissance jets took photographs of anti-G-8 demonstrators this summer at Heiligendamm make many in Germany feel uncomfortable -- including a good many politicians. But Schäuble keeps pushing, and is even working on a constitutional amendment that would loosen the rules for domestic military deployments.

Nevertheless, it is clear that Schäuble is prepared for much stricter security controls than the German people and even the German Chancellor is. Merkel's spokesman Thomas Steg on Monday carefully commented that there can be no taboos in the discussion of the terror danger, but seemed keen on distancing the chancellery from Schäuble's comments.

It likely won't be the last time. There seem to be a number of additional items on Schäuble's anti-terror wish list.

"I know there are fears and that this also only meets with limited approval in opinion polls," Schäuble said in the interview. "That is why I demand of political leadership that it takes these fears seriously."

In other words, Schäuble likely isn't finished yet. Stay tuned for his next proposal.

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