The War on Shapeless Terror
There seems to be no rational basis for the arrest of a group of German sociologists, and the case highlights the fragility of our civil liberties.
"Terrorism" has two faces. There are real threats and real terrorists, and then again there is a realm of nameless fears, vague forebodings, and irrational responses. The German federal police seem to have succumbed to the latter; on the July 31 2007 they raided the flats and workplaces of Dr Andrej Holm and Dr Matthias B, as well as of two other persons, all engaged in that most suspicious pursuit: committing sociology.
Dr Holm was arrested, flown by helicopter to the German federal court in Karlsruhe and has since been put in (pre-trial) solitary confinement in a Berlin jail. Of course the police may have solid, rational knowledge they are withholding, but their public statements belong more in the realm of farce. Dr Matthias B is alleged to have used, in his academic publications, "phrases and key words" which are also used by a militant group; among these words are "inequality" and "gentrification". The police found it suspicious that meetings took place with German social activists in which our sociologists did not bring their mobile phones; somehow the police deemed this a sign of "conspiratorial behaviour". By an odd twist, though, none of the activists are in jail, only their sociological interviewers.
Germany had, 30 years ago, a terrible time with indisputably violent militant groups and that leaden memory undoubtedly hangs over the police. And it may well be that "gentrification" is a truly terrifying word. But this police action in a liberal democracy seems more likely to fall into Guantánamo mode than genuine counter-espionage. Consider the hapless Dr Matthias B a little further. He's not actually accused of writing anything inflammatory, but seen rather to have the intellectual capability to "author the sophisticated texts" a militant group might require; further, our scholar, "as employee in a research institute has access to libraries which he can use inconspicuously in order to do the research necessary to the drafting of texts" of militant groups, though he hasn't written any. The one solid fact the cops have on Andrej Holm is that he was at the scene of the "resistance mounted by the extreme leftwing scene against the World Economic Summit of 2007 in Heiligendamm," perhaps confused by the fact that he is studying this scene, not stage-managing it.
These are not reasons for Brits, any more than Americans, to cluck in righteous disapproval; in the long, sad history of the IRA in Northern Ireland, reality and fantasy entwined in an ever-tighter cord. But, apart from hoping that our colleague will be freed if only he promises to carry his mobile phone at all times, we are struck by the grey zones of fragile civil liberties and confused state power which this case reveals.
The liberal state is changing. In the 1960s, Germany had the most enlightened rules for refugees and asylum seekers of all European countries, the United States passed the most sensible laws on immigration in its history; France granted automatic citizenship to all those born on its territory - including all Muslims. Today all these countries, in the name of the war on terror, have revised their rules; the state of emergency rules. The laws meant for real threats are invoked to counter shapeless fear; in place of real police work, the authorities want to put a name - any name - to those they should dread. States of emergency are dangerous to the legitimacy of states. In cases conducted like this one, the government stands to lose its authority and so lessens its chances of rooting out and prosecuting actual terrorists.
If our colleagues are indeed dangerous sociologists, they should be prosecuted rationally. But, as in Guantánamo, persecution here seems to have taken the place of prosecution.
Richard Sennett is a sociologist at the London School of Economics; Saskia Sassen is a sociologist at Columbia University.
© 2007 The Guardian/UK