BONN — Reeling from the shock waves of a right-wing arson attack that claimed the lives of three Turkish residents early Monday, the German government launched a series of measures Tuesday aimed at combatting the growing horror of political extremism.
In an interview with the newspaper Hamburger Morgenpost, Justice Minister Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger said police will receive new training and equipment to counter extremism and hinted at tougher court sentences for those found guilty of extremist violence.
"There will be a check to determine what changes in sentences and in the criminal process are necessary," Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger said.
Exceptionally mild sentences given to right-wing extremists convicted, thus far, of violent crimes have been a key factor in undermining the repeated statements by authorities that they consider political violence a serious threat.
Ignatz Bubis, chairman of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, also charged in an interview Tuesday that light sentences given to those convicted of xenophobic and anti-Semitic attacks had trivialized the crimes.
"These people must be locked up," he said. "The punishment must be a deterrent."
Meanwhile, federal Interior Ministry officials confirmed Tuesday that moves to ban a number of right-wing political groups are imminent, and the Foreign Ministry distributed a letter to its 8,000 employees urging them to personally get involved in countering the wave of xenophobia sweeping Germany.
"It is a disgrace for our nation," the letter said in part.
Two Turkish girls, ages 10 and 14, and a 51-year-old woman died in Monday's arson attack in the north German town of Moelln. An anonymous caller to a local police station claimed responsibility and concluded his message by saying, "Heil Hitler."
Police investigators said Tuesday there was no hard evidence as to who carried out the assault, although they said they were checking more than 50 tips. A reward equivalent to about $100,000 has been offered for evidence leading to the arrest and conviction of the culprits.
An estimated 10,000 Germans marched in several cities Monday night to protest the arson attack.
Besides claiming three lives, Monday's attack--in comparison with most of the 1,800 assaults and other violent, right-wing hate crimes that have occurred this year in Germany--provoked a far more powerful public and political reaction for two reasons:
* It was directed against the country's large group of Turkish residents. They have integrated relatively well into Germany since they first began arriving here in the early 1960s. (The majority of right-wing attacks have been against foreigners who have taken advantage of Germany's liberal asylum laws to try to start life anew here. Those individuals enjoy little public sympathy.)
* The attack occurred in affluent, stable western Germany--not in the chaotic formerly Communist eastern region, where a combination of high unemployment and the collapse of the old social order have provided fertile ground for rightist attacks against foreigners.
Unlike many previous occasions when foreign news organizations often gave greater prominence to xenophobic attacks in Germany than the domestic media did, a genuine sense of outrage about the attack was visible across the front pages of the country's newspapers Tuesday morning. "We're in the process of getting used to murderous violence of right-wing extremists," warned the Munich newspaper Suddeutsche Zeitung.
Many papers urged more forceful political action to counter the violence, and some of those commentators traditionally sympathetic to Chancellor Helmut Kohl on Tuesday lashed out at his government's paralysis.
"What is happening here has nothing to do with liberalism; we are witnessing a government that has simply done nothing but play politics with the issues," charged Thomas Kielinger, editor of the Rheinischer Merkur, a Bonn weekly usually supportive of Kohl's Christian Democrats. "They have to get off their fat (posteriors) and go to work."
There are signs that a deepening public resentment against politicians from all mainstream parties for their failure to deal both with the political extremism and its key causes may now make it difficult for any government figure to lead from the streets.
Press reports from Moelln noted that local residents refused to let state legislators address a protest there and only permitted novelist Guenter Grass to speak.