Knife attack on a high speed train

Dear Reader,

I seem to have upset a few people with the statement in the last newsletter that “this is a pandemic of the old and the sick”. I said this in reference to intensive care capacity, the point being that spending time and effort on getting young people vaccinated is not going to be decisive in relieving pressure on hospitals. I’d also point to the success of Denmark which lifted restrictions based on vaccine rates among its elderly citizens. If you disagree though, feel free to write a comment below.

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Random, inexplicable violence

Onto a much less controversial topic…

On Saturday morning, a man armed with a knife attacked passengers on a train in Bavaria, injuring three of them. Other passengers fled down the train in terror with no way of escape.

Later that day a man stabbed a child in a Munich outlet store. As far as police can gather, this was an act of random violence. There appears to have been no link between the man and his 10-year-old victim.

As someone who works for English-language media outlets, I can tell you that a lot of the focus in newsrooms is one whether these are acts of terrorism. Did the attacker shout Allah hu Akbar? Have police found extremist literature in his home?

On both counts the answer seems to be ‘no’. The first suspect is a 27-year-old Syrian man who had refugee status in Germany. He has been put into a psychological ward and is not considered fully culpable due to suffering from psychosis. Little has yet been made public about the second man other than that he has been described as “stateless.”

The distinction between terrorist and mentally ill is a peculiar one, though. The one does not necessarily exclude the other. We saw this with the far-right attack in Hanau last year, where a man suffering from paranoid delusions murdered nine people from immigrant communities in two shisha bars.

I have my doubts as to whether terrorism - an organized form of political violence - is really the most important factor here.

While random brutality has existed in German society for ever, a particular type of unprovoked crime of this nature appears to have emerged in recent years as society has become more pluralistic. 

Many of these crimes are carried out by people who came to Germany as asylum seekers and they are often found to have been influenced by Islamist literature before carrying out their crime.

At the same time, there has been an increase in violence by Germans towards migrants since the first known such incident in 2009, when a man stabbed a pregnant Egyptian woman to death at a courthouse in Dresden. The crime happened at his trial for racially abusing her a few weeks earlier.

Then there is the type of random violence that appears to have been carried out by an unhinged individual with no connection to political extremism.

Police statistics clearly show a rise in violent crime after the mass refugee arrivals in 2015. Due to the fact that police count crimes carried out by people categorized as Zuwanderer (in this case roughly meaning asylum seekers), it is evident that an over-proportional level of the crime comes from this category.

There are a long list of qualifiers, though. Native Germans are older, wealthier and more female than the average migrant - making them statistically less prone to violence.

Additionally, much of the criminal activity from the category of Zuwanderer comes from a small number of hardened criminals who have very often not been granted asylum.

Qualifiers aside, the novelty of the unprovoked and seemingly deranged violence against strangers on streets and in public transport demands a thoughtful response from politicians.

Can new forms of identity be created that have a stronger emotional appeal than ethnic nationalism or religious fundamentalism? Such an identity is surely necessary to establish basic trust between strangers in a multi-ethnic, multi-religious society.

At the same time, one wonders whether creating such a sense of common identity is at all possible in chaotic and fragmented 21st century western societies. Or at least whether the costs would outweigh the benefits.

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