August 26, 2005
Heroes of Allah in Hamburg?

It's after midnight and I was getting ready to turn in for the day, but the news of the moment has compelled me to send up a post to the blog. It seems that just a few hours ago, a citizen who speaks the language overheard three guys speaking Arabic at a bus stop here in Hamburg, and one snatch of the conversation he picked up was: "Tomorrow we will be heroes for Allah." Then they got on Bus 3 (which happens to go right past my street) and headed off towards Bahrenfeld, one of them carrying a backpack. For reasons that they do not explain, the police have stated that this witness is credible. This is all they know; they police have emphasized that they have no other indications of some kind of planned attack whatsoever. Oh, and they have pictures of these guys taken by a public monitoring camera at the bus stop and, uh, how shall I put this? They look like A-rabs.

So at this moment, according to news reports, there are over 1000 policemen on the streets of Hamburg, stopping cars and looking for, um, well I guess they're trying to spot the suicide bombers (how exactly does a cop identify a suicide bomber in a car at night?). It's all over the television news channels and all of the German-language news web sites.

So what's going to happen in Hamburg tomorrow? Are we going to have our own version of July 7th, with buses and subways full of people blowing up all over town, a mini-redux of September 11th? Isn't that a charming thought? I think I'm going to drive the car to work tomorrow.

As of this moment, anything could happen. If someone really is planning something, and the cops catch them before it happens, they'll be the heroes (to Allah or whoever). But if nothing happens tomorrow, or anytime soon, then they'll look ridiculous, and perhaps racist. After all, all they have said at this point is that someone speaking Arabic said something about Allah and then got onto a bus with a backpack; and oh yeah, they looked like A-rabs. If tomorrow comes and goes without anything happening, then maybe the police have hassled everyone all over town for no better reason other than that someone looks and speaks Arabic; which is likely to foster resentment among Muslims and Arabs living in Hamburg, and there are quite a few of those.

On the other hand, if nothing happens, we'll never know if there really was a plot which just got foiled by the police. If there was, then their efforts were all to the good; but it would be hardly possible to prove that. Moreover, the bombers in London were also young men who were caught on film (but only noticed later, unfortunately) carrying backpacks onto buses and subways; and ugly as it sounds, some of them looked like A-rabs. So maybe it's only prudent for the police in Hamburg to at least check. But then again, racial profiling in the aftermath of July 7th has led to grief in London, where the police, who are on "shoot to kill" orders, have shot to death a foreign-looking man who was running through a Tube station but turned out to have nothing to do with terrorism.

The worst thing, of course, if something really is up, and buses and subways blow up and kill people all over town tomorrow. Maybe someone I know. If that happens, will I wish that the police tried harder to catch the bombers, maybe even shooting them if necessary? Probably I will. But if they shoot someone unnecessarily, and we start having deadly riots all over town, then the result is almost as bad.

There is an ugly bit of recent history here in Hamburg serving as a background, because it was right here where Mohammed Atta, Ramzi Binalshibh and a few other students at the Technical University in Harburg formed an Al Qaeda cell and cooked up the plan to fly hijacked plans into buildings in New York and Washington. For all I know, I might have sat next to one of those guys on a bus once. The police in Hamburg have certainly not forgotten about that, and they probably don't want to be seen as failing to catch the bad guys again.

It's the middle of the night and I'm really going to have to turn in now, despite everything. Let's hope that there will be no violence and that peace will prevail.

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