Guantánamo in Germany
In the name of the war on terror, our colleagues are being persecuted -
for the crime of sociology
Richard Sennett and Saskia Sassen
Tuesday August 21, 2007
'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 July 31 they raided the flats and workplaces of Dr
Andrej Holm and Dr Matthias B, as well as of two other people, all of
them engaged in that most suspicious pursuit - committing sociology.
Dr Holm was arrested and flown to the German federal court in Karlsruhe;
he 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 to the realm of farce.
Dr B is alleged to have used, in his academic publications, "phrases and
key words" also used by a militant group, among them "inequality" and
"gentrification". The police found it suspicious that meetings occurred
with German activists in which the sociologists did not bring their
mobile phones; the police deemed this a sign of "conspiratorial behaviour".
Thirty years ago Germany had a terrible time with indisputably violent
militant groups, and that leaden memory 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 to fall more into Guantánamo
mode than genuine counter-espionage.
Consider the hapless Dr B a little further. He's not actually accused of
writing anything inflammatory, but seen rather to be intellectually
capable of "authoring 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 writtten any. The one solid fact the cops have on Dr 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 mistakenly believing he is studying this scene
rather than 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, reality and
fantasy entwined in an ever tighter cord. But, apart from hoping that
our colleague Dr Holm 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 that this case reveals.
The liberal state is changing. In the 60s, Germany had the most
enlightened rules for refugees and asylum seekers in Europe; the US
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 have, in the name of
the war on terror, revised their rules - the state of emergency
prevails. 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 what they should dread. States of emergency
are dangerous to the legitimacy of states. In cases conducted like this
one, a government stands to lose its authority and so its ability to
root out actual terrorists.
If our colleagues are indeed dangerous sociologists, they should be
prosecuted rationally. But, as in Guantánamo, persecution 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
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