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At 7am, on 29 October I was arrested at the Munich airport. After a day of interviews and book-signings and another two spent at a Goethe Institute seminar (on ‘Islam and the Crisis’), I was exhausted and desperate for a cup of coffee. I checked in. Soon my hand-luggage was wending its way through the security machine. No metal objects were detected, but they insisted on dumping its contents on a table.
Newspapers, dirty underpants, shirts, magazines and books tumbled out in full view. Since news always reaches Germany a day after it has appeared in the US press, I thought the locals might be unaware of FBI and CIA briefings to the effect that Bin Laden or Iraqi complicity in the anthrax scare was extremely unlikely and were on the look-out for envelopes containing powder. There were no envelopes of any sort in my bag.
The machine-minder brushed aside the copies of the Sud-Deutsche Zeitung (SDZ), the International Herald Tribune and Le Monde Diplomatique. He appeared to be very interested in the Times Literary Supplement and was inspecting my scribbled notes on the margin of a particular book review.
I suggested that if he wanted my views on the present crisis he could read them in German in the SDZ which had published an article of mine. I pointed it out to him.
He grasped the text eagerly and then, in a state of some excitement, rushed it over to the armed policeman.
Then his eyes fell on a slim volume in German which had been handed to me by a local publisher. Since there had been no time to flip through the volume, it was still wrapped in cellophane.
The offending book was an essay by Karl Marx, ‘On Suicide’. It was the reference to suicide that had got the policemen really excited. They barely registered the author, though when they did real panic set in and there were agitated exchanges.
I was slightly bemused by the spectacle, waiting for them to finish so I could read the morning papers. This was not to be. The way they began to watch me was an indication of their state of mind. They really thought they had got someone.
My passport and boarding card were taken from me. I was rudely instructed to re-pack my bag, minus the crucial ‘evidence’ (SDZ, the TLS and the offending text by Marx), after which I was escorted out of the departure area and taken to the police HQ at the airport.
On the way there, the arresting officer gave me a triumphant smile. ‘After September 11, you can’t travel with books like this’, he said.
‘In that case’, I replied, ‘perhaps you should stop publishing them in Germany or better still burn them in public view.’
Inside the HQ another officer informed me that it was unlikely I’d be boarding the BA flight and they would make inquiries about later departures. At this point my patience evaporated and I demanded to use a phone.
‘Who do you want to ring?’
‘The Mayor of Munich’, I replied. ‘His name is Christian Ude. He interviewed me about my books and the present crisis on Friday evening at the Hugundubel bookshop. I wish to inform him of what is taking place.’
The police officer disappeared.
A few minutes later another officer (this one sported a beard) appeared and beckoned me to follow him. He escorted me to the flight which had virtually finished boarding. We did not exchange words.
On the plane a German fellow-passenger came and expressed his dismay at the police behaviour. He told me how the policeman who had detained me had returned to boast to other passengers of how his vigilance had led to my arrest.
It was a trivial enough episode, but indicative of the mood of the Social Democrat-Green alliance that rules Germany today. It is almost as if many of those currently in power are trying desperately to exorcise their own pasts.
While Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder was in Pakistan insisting that there could be no pause in the bombing and that the war of attrition would continue, his Minister for Interior, Otto Schilly, was busy masterminding the new security laws, which threaten traditional civil liberties. Schilly, once a radical lawyer and a friend of the generation of ’68, first acquired public notoriety when he became the defense lawyer for the Red Army Faction, an urban terrorist network active in the Seventies. It was said at the time that he also supported their activities.
In 1980 Schilly joined the Greens and was their key spokesman in the fight against the stationing of Cruise and Pershing missiles in Germany. In 1989 he moved further by joining the Social Democrats. Today he is busy justifying extra powers to the police and infusing a sense of ‘realism’ in his Green coalition partners. One of the realist proposals being discussed is granting jurisdiction to the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (the German equivalent of the FBI) so that it has the right to spy on individuals it suspects of working against the ’causes of international understanding or the peaceful coexistence of nations.’
And since in the debased coinage of the present ‘peaceful coexistence of nations’ includes waging war against some of them, I suppose that my experience was a tiny dress-rehearsal for what is yet to come.
It was a tiny enough scratch, but if untreated these can sometimes lead to gangrene. CP
Tariq Ali, a frequent CounterPunch contributor, is the author of The Stone Woman.