February, 2015

Berlin -- On February 2nd at the Zeughaus, in conjunction with an ongoing exhibition, the German Historical Museum sponsored a panel discussion about the 1970s leftist terror group Red Army Faction (RAF). The Baader-Meinhof Gang, as it was also called, created havoc across Germany with its kidnappings and murders of prominent citizens.

A clearly divided panel – two academics, one journalist, and a representative of the German internal security agency, the Verfassungsschutz – debated the causes of this terror movement. Many in the audience took sides, clapping for one panelist or another. Among many subjects of contention was the role of Peter Urbach and his role as agent provocateur in the service of the Verfassungsschutz. Incredibly, he made bombs and put them in the hands of terrorists, but was never brought to justice. He was given a new identity and hustled off to the United States, where he died in 2011. It demonstrates that internal security organizations can be among a country's own worst enemies.

Which brings us to the current terrorism in Europe, most recently in Paris. The U.S. Government has issued a warning to Americans in Berlin and in several other German cities. But what are the causes of this terrorism? As in the case of the RAF, it is without doubt complicated. Should the statements of the terrorists themselves be given any credence? The brothers who murdered Parisians have previously said their extreme radicalism was triggered by American torture in Iraq. This is a risk and a consequence of torture: the escalation of terror. When we engage in torture, we may be our own worst enemy.

Blowback of any kind should be a concern to citizens and security agencies alike, whether it be from torture or from the glorification of violence in the name of artistic freedom or the desire to make a buck. I cringe whenever I see a movie trailer exalting the use of weapons, blowing up cars, taking hostages, killing indiscriminately. Somehow I don't get the message that this is all okay – even thrilling – when it's condoned because it is done in the name of American security. Some viewers may think, indeed, why not in the name of Allah?

We wring our hands; how do we balance freedom of expression with fighting terrorism? Well, one way would be to be more discriminating as citizens and consumers, to show that we understand where our true security interests lie, and it is not in committing torture or creating demand for entertainment that will cause inevitable blowback. Such actions are akin to putting bombs in terrorists' hands.