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Aftermath of Munich shooting offers important lesson on the politics of fear

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The person I know best in Munich described the mood in the Bavarian city Friday as "surreal," so it seems fitting the Tweet from the Munich Police that night notifying the world the crisis sparked by a mass shooting at a fast-food restaurant was finally over had the surreal quality of found poetry:

We found a man,
who killed him himself.
We assume,
that he was the only shooter.

By yesterday, assumptions had started to give way to knowledge, offering us the opportunity to learn something useful from this tragedy.

It is important to do so while the knee-jerk responses by some of our fellow Canadians -- who used it as an instant excuse to defame Muslims, portray refugees as dangerous and, bizarrely, demand less-effective gun control laws at a time virtually no solid facts were known -- remain fresh in our minds.

The first lesson is the obvious: While Friday's events were terrifying, they were not terrorism. That is, they were not connected with terrorism in the sense we normally define the word today, as organized attacks on civilians with a political or religious motivation that are not carried out by a nation state's armed forces.

Munich police say the 18-year-old German-born, German citizen acted alone and that there is no evidence whatsoever he was connected with any terrorist group, at least of the sort associated with the Middle East.

Rather, it turns out, Ali David Sonboly, the troubled young man with the gun, was obsessed with U.S.-style school and restaurant shootings -- which appears to be exactly what he set out to perpetrate. He is also reported to have been fascinated with neo-Nazi ideology, which may explain why he struck on the fifth anniversary of the mass murder in Norway by far-right terrorist Anders Behring Breivik, why he was shouting "I am German," or words to that effect, and why most of his victims seem to have been Muslims.

So one lesson this should reinforce is that first media reports from most violent situations are almost invariably wrong.

Multiple shooters? As usual, it turned out there was only one. However, it had been threatening to rain that morning, so no doubt some of the people scurrying away were carrying rolled up umbrellas, just the thing, irresponsibly reported, to raise the panic level.

People yelling "God is Great" in Arabic? Turns out the young man in question was shouting "I am 100 per cent German" in German. There was only him. It is telling and troubling that it wasn't only fraudulent online anti-immigration sites that made this mistake, presumably intentionally, but also respectable news organizations like CNN.

Another lesson is that if you hold strong views, you're certain to look smarter if you wait to start screeching about the bee in your bonnet until you know what the hell is going on.

If you ask me, my anti-immigration neighbours who apparently sincerely believe they are about to be subject to Sharia law right here in Edmonton, where we've gotten along fine with our Muslim neighbours at least since 1938 when they built their first mosque, should have waited until they knew who the shooter was before they started shooting off their mouths on Facebook.

But then, these folks are normally quite undeterred by facts. It will probably be enough for them that it appears the shooter's parents came to Germany from Iran, and his first name suggests he is Muslim -- never mind that a Shia from Iran is about as likely to be found in a terror group like ISIS or Al Qaeda as a Mormon from Cardston is to be welcomed into the Swiss Guards at the Vatican.

Another clear lesson from Friday is that tough gun control laws help. The BBC reports that it is not yet known how the shooter acquired a handgun, ownership of which is tightly controlled in Germany.

This has gun nuts screaming that everyone should be armed, so they can shoot back, a recipe for chaos and more tragedy. But the reality is that if this had taken place in the United States -- or now, sadly, Canada, as a result of the destructive work of the Harper Conservatives -- the death toll would probably have been much higher because an easily accessible assault rifle would have been at hand.

Statistics show clearly that such events are far less common in Germany than they are in the United States. And, unlike what may happen now in Canada, they will stay that way thanks to Germany's tough gun laws.

We cannot fault the Bavarian police, by the way, for their immediate reaction to a situation that could have been anything. In light of recent events elsewhere in Europe, a strong response really was their only choice. Still, their after-action response was appropriate too -- in effect, that this was a terrible tragedy, it's under control, you may now go about your business. The citizens of Munich, to their credit, seem to have done just that.

It was refreshing to see a state authority not make an effort to terrify the population as a method of social control, as has happened in some neighbouring European countries and in the United States.

Finally, we can take two additional lessons, that terrorist groups will take credit for any violent tragedy, even when it is quickly apparent they could have had nothing to do with it.

And that we can become so terrified of terror we're prepared to give up what makes our society worth fighting for: our freedom of movement, association, religion and expression.

Only fools, cowards and people who have another agenda would tell you a Wall will make us safe.

This is probably a good moment to mention to readers that in a couple of weeks, things will be much quieter for a spell on this blog. I will be off, you see, to … Munich. This post also appears on AlbertaPolitics.ca.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

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