Love Parade Tragedy Why Hasn't Merkel Visited the Site of the Duisburg Disaster?

Chancellor Angela Merkel has been conspicuous by her absence from the site of Saturday's Love Parade disaster. Her presence would have been a much-needed show of solidarity with the people of Duisburg as local officials refuse to accept responsiblity. In other countries, government leaders would not have stayed away.

The bell-bottom trousers Chancellor Angela Merkel wore at an opera festival on Sunday drew more media response on Sunday than her absence from Duisburg.
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The bell-bottom trousers Chancellor Angela Merkel wore at an opera festival on Sunday drew more media response on Sunday than her absence from Duisburg.

An Editorial by

On Sunday, the day after 20 people were crushed to death and over 500 injured in a stampede at the Love Parade in Duisburg, German Chancellor Angela Merkel visited the opera in Bayreuth. It is true that tickets for the annual Wagner festival are notoriously hard to come by, but she would have been better advised to skip Act I and travel to the site of the disaster.

Merkel is in good company. Christian Wulff, the largely ceremonial president narrowly elected last month, hasn't seen fit to break off his vacation either to spend a few minutes at the deadly tunnel where young people from Germany and six other countries died in agony. A shrine of flowers and cards has since been placed there by thousands of mourners.

Both have said they will attend a memorial ceremony to be held on Saturday. But that is too late, and the distant messages of condolence they have issued so far aren't enough.

The physical presence of Germany's national leaders was urgently needed at this site of national tragedy, not just to express mourning but, more importantly, to show solidarity with the people of Duisburg who must be feeling utterly abandoned at the moment.

The amateurish organization of the event -- having a single entrance and exit point through a tunnel and grossly underestimating the size of the crowd -- is startling for a first-world country, especially one like Germany which prides itself on its safety standards and capacity for organization.

Chaotic Response

But the chaotic official response to the disaster has been equally alarming. The city administration, the police and the organizers have spent the last three days blaming each other and refusing to take responsibility. Duisburg Mayor Adolf Sauerland told a news conference on Sunday that the security plan for the event was "solid."

Astoundingly, he refused to answer questions about the tragedy by saying "I have to protect my staff" in light of a police investigation into accusations of "reckless homicide." He has refused so far to resign.

There is a growing sense that no one is in charge. This is partly because local officials are racing for cover in a bid to protect their jobs. But it is also the result of Germany's highly devolved administrative system in which there are multiple levels of government, each with considerable powers -- the national government, 16 regional governments, and over 11,000 local authorities such as the municipality of Duisburg, which took it upon itself to host the Love Parade.

In such a system, it is very easy for elected officials and civil servants to say "I am not responsible." That attitude, together with a lack of sensitivity and a shortage of political savvy, might help to explain why Germany's national leadership has stayed away from Duisburg so far.

The attitude has become so ingrained in German society, it seems, that the country's media has not criticized Merkel or Wulff for their absence. Comments on Merkel's visit to Bayreuth were confined to her intriguing bell-bottom trousers.

British, French Leaders Would Have Rushed to the Scene

If 20 people had died in a stampede in France or in Britain, President Nicolas Sarkozy and Prime Minister David Cameron would have hurried to the scene. If they hadn't, the media in those countries would have wanted to know why. And if they had been spotted visiting the opera the next day instead, there would have been a public outcry.

This doesn't just apply to the modern age of political showmanship. In April 1985, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher visited Sheffield the day after 96 Liverpool fans were crushed to death there at the Hillsborough football stadium.

Some might say political leaders who visit the sites of national tragedies are just trying to score points with voters. When eastern Germany was struck by devastating floods in 2002, Merkel's predecessor, Gerhard Schröder, in the midst of an election campaign, donned his Wellington boots and trudged around the stricken areas promising billions of euros in aid.

Opinion pollsters said this helped him win the election. It may have been clever tactics on Schröder's part, but wasn't he also doing his job by showing leadership? And couldn't Merkel use a few brownie points given her slide in popularity this year? Either her press officials aren't advising her well, or she is ignoring them.

The people of Duisburg would surely have appreciated a quick visit by their chancellor who could have added weight to her demand, made in statements to the media, that the tragedy must be properly investigated to make sure it isn't repeated.


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