German Attack Offers Lessons on Guns and Neo-Nazis

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10 okt. 2019, 15.45

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- An anti-Semitic shooting on Yom Kippur in Germany – worse news is difficult to imagine. But Wednesday’s horrible events in the eastern German city of Halle would have been bloodier had they taken place in a country with weaker gun laws and a less security-aware Jewish community.

There’s also another lesson in what happened. For all the talk of “imported anti-Semitism” that comes with an increase in Muslim immigration, Jews and Muslims are in the same boat when it comes to the deadliest kind of xenophobic violence – the traditional, neo-Nazi kind.

The 27-year-old attacker took care to document his motives, planning and the attack itself. In files he posted online before he drove to the Halle synagogue on Wednesday, he called himself a neo-Nazi and explained that he wanted to “kill as many anti-whites as possible, Jews preferred.” He mentioned that he’d also thought of attacking a mosque or an antifascist cultural center, because they were less protected than synagogues. (In Germany, all Jewish establishments including houses of worship are watched over by the police.) But then he changed his mind, he said, because the influx of immigrants into Europe made for too big a target.

He described how he made his own arms, the goal being to show that improvised guns can work. The only factory-made weapon he managed to obtain was an ancient Smith carbine for use as a last resort. He actually expected to fail unless the synagogue’s thick doors were open or would succumb to a makeshift hand grenade.

In the event, the doors held, saving the 80 people inside, who barricaded themselves in after they heard shots. The attacker killed a woman outside the house of worship, all while streaming his actions to the gamer website Twitch, which has since taken down the video. He then drove to a nearby Turkish restaurant and shot a man dead before his weapon jammed. 

As mass shootings go, the Halle attack was a relative failure, in part thanks to the use of homemade weapons. It’s hard for a lone terrorist of limited means to get his hands on any other kind of guns in Germany. Automatic rifles are pretty much out of reach for anyone without serious organized crime connections. Hunting weapons and handguns are somewhat easier to obtain despite strict laws regulating access to them, but they are of no use to an aspiring mass murderer.

There’s much hand-wringing about the security measures and police posts at German synagogues. But the stark reality is that Jews are targets for neo-Nazi violence in any corner of the world. The Halle shooter wrote and spoke in English, addressing an international audience. The high security awareness of Germany’s Jewish communities and the help they get from the police are entirely justified. They stop people from being killed. Elsewhere, similar measures should be in place to thwart attacks like last year’s synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh, in which 11 people died.

The German police keep detailed statistics on hate crime and anti-Semitic crime in particular. Last year, they recorded 1,799 anti-Semitic offenses, a 20% increase from 2017. Of these, 89% were committed by people with extreme-right motives and views. That’s the reality of modern Germany, though attacks by Muslim immigrants attract more media attention. The threat to Jews comes overwhelmingly not from the Muslims, but from extreme nationalists and racists who hate all non-Whites and non-Christians – people like the Halle shooter. Of the 910 anti-Muslim crimes committed in 2018, right-wing radicals were responsible for 92%.

Bavaria’s Interior Minister Joachim Herrmann on Thursday blamed “spiritual arsonists” from the nationalist Alternative for Germany (AfD) party for the spread of anti-Semitism, even though the AfD is mostly an anti-immigrant party. He even singled out AfD politician Bjoern Hoecke, considered the leader of the party’s hardline wing.

Herrmann has a point. In the area around Halle, Saalekreis, part of the state of Saxony Anhalt, the AfD came first in this year’s European Parliament election, winning 24% of the vote. It’s probably note a coincidence that the shooter came from a part of the country that votes this way. 

Hoecke on Wednesday professed “disgust, sadness and anger” at the shooting. But in his Facebook post, he only mentioned the synagogue attack, not the shooting at the kebab restaurant. That may be a calculated recognition of a sad reality in Germany today, that while a politician can’t get away with open anti-Semitism, anti-Muslim utterances aren’t judged as harshly.

The potential victims of neo-Nazi violence – Jews, Muslims, everyone with a different skin color –  should feel more solidarity with each other. The danger is shared.

To contact the author of this story: Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Melissa Pozsgay at mpozsgay@bloomberg.net

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Leonid Bershidsky is Bloomberg Opinion's Europe columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.

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