Baby with the bath water

John Muenzberg

Column by John Muenzberg, Lecturer of philosophy

After major terrorist attacks the most common reaction is fear. Individuals become fearful for their lives, governments fear instability and disorder, investors fear monetary losses. Actions taken while in fear are rarely based on facts or sound policy. They are usually designed to assuage our emotions regardless of the actual effects on our safety, stability or property. The worst sorts of actions actually contradict the principles that societies hold dear.

In May of 1972 the Red Army Faction (RAF), popularly known as the Baader-Meinhof Group, committed five separate bombings in West Germany. The targets ranged from German police officers, to American Army soldiers, to a conservative newspaper. Four people were killed and about 40 were wounded.

In the early 1960s it was revealed that a number of influential people in West Germany had either been members of the Nazi party or were Nazi sympathizers. Young West Germans were shocked and somewhat frightened. It was a black mark for their “modern” Germany to still be connected to such a horrible past. But radicals such as the RAF were convinced that West Germany was not truly democratic, but rather a Fascist organization propped up by the USA to fight the USSR.

Their goal was to cause so much mayhem that the government would overreact. They thought that West Germany would impose such drastic measures that the citizens would understand the brutality at the heart of the government and revolt en masse.

But that didn’t happen. The government did crack down and enacted some extreme laws. Germany created a new national police force. They passed laws barring public service jobs to “radicals” and required loyalty statements from millions of workers. They built a new prison to house these highly organized and violent criminals. All of these measures verged on undemocratic, but it certainly never degenerated into mass imprisonment as the Nazis had done. The first wave of the RAF was arrested, charged and given access to lawyers. Three prominent members committed suicide in prison in 1977, but West Germany struggled against the RAF until the early 1990s.

The response of the government was problematic, but it was certainly not fascist. In the end, West Germany proved that they were a functioning democracy that was able to adapt to threats without a complete collapse of those democratic principles. Over the years Germany has actually become more liberal, and a number of the laws enacted in the 1970s were repealed. There were some very dark times, but democratic principles won the day.

The recent terrorist attack in Paris has amplified many Americans’ fears, especially of Muslims. There have been calls to not accept Syrian refugees, or only accept Christian ones. David Bowers, mayor of Roanoke, Virginia noted with approval the Japanese internment camps authorized by FDR after the attack at Pearl Harbor. Even before the attack Ben Carson argued that we should not have a Muslim as president.

Of course Carson’s idea directly contradicts the U.S. Constitution, which forbids religious tests for public office. And we should resist any politician who thinks the proper role of the federal government is to arrest and imprison people because of their ancestry or religion.

Principles can provide a check to our actions when we are fearful. Some of the founding principles written into our constitution include freedom of religion, freedom of assembly and habeas corpus. We should question anyone who wants to remove these rights in order to protect our country. It is unclear what sort of country we would have without them.