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A Day for Soul Searching and Politics

Violence: Students demand reforms and lawmakers blame one another after deadly German rampage.

April 30, 2002|DAVID HOLLEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ERFURT, Germany — While Germans mourned the victims of a school shooting that left 17 dead, the tragedy was politicized Monday as politicians traded charges and students in this eastern state capital held a rally demanding school reforms.

The gathering of about 1,000 students from Erfurt schools was part memorial, part protest, but most of all a kind of open-air stream-of-consciousness group therapy session. Organizers provided a microphone, at which one speaker after another, most of them teenage students, said whatever was on his or her mind.

A few students thanked or memorialized their teachers. Others called for reforms to reduce academic pressure and make school more interesting. Many expressed bitterness at what they saw as insensitive and intrusive media coverage of the rampage. Some also complained that politicians have been journeying to Erfurt, the capital of Thuringia state, since the shootings to boost their election campaigns.

The rally began after a minute of silence during which much of Germany paused at 11:05 a.m., exactly three days after the moment when a janitor at the Johann Gutenberg secondary school called police to say that a gunman was shooting people.

In an apparent act of revenge for having been expelled, Robert Steinhaeuser, 19, walked into the school and killed 13 school employees, two students, a police officer and finally himself. Police said the killer belonged to two gun clubs, owned his weapons legally and had violent video and computer games at home.

Calls to ban violent electronic games moved to center stage in partisan politics. A top conservative politician blamed the Social Democratic-led governing coalition for failing to take action against them.

"There is not even a draft law on banning such programs," Bavarian Interior Minister Guenther Beckstein said. Though the upper house of Parliament called for such a ban two years ago, Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's government "scandalously remained inactive," said Beckstein, who is in line to become federal interior minister if Bavarian Gov. Edmund Stoiber, the conservative challenger to Schroeder, wins the September national election.

Social Democratic and Greens politicians immediately fired back.

"Mr. Beckstein speaks of scandalous inactivity; I speak of scandalous behavior by Mr. Beckstein," Interior Minister Otto Schily told state-run ZDF television. "Someone who tries to stir the election campaign in such a shameless and indecent way disqualifies himself for a federal post. He clearly doesn't have the ability to conduct politics at this level."

Volker Beck, a spokesman for the Greens, accused the conservatives of trying to "exploit the terrible crime of Erfurt for their campaign."

Classes at most Erfurt schools were either canceled or spent commemorating the victims.

Many children made small drawings and posters in memory of those killed, then went with teachers in groups to place the messages with the thousands of flowers set in front of the Gutenberg school. A formal memorial service for the victims is scheduled for Friday.

Stoiber visited the school Monday and added a bouquet.

"This is a time for mourning and condolences," he said. "We need stricter intolerance of the glorification of violence and the acceptance of violence in society."

Schroeder came to Erfurt on Saturday, and several other top national politicians have visited. In Berlin on Monday, Schroeder called for the tightening of gun laws, including raising the legal age for owning certain weapons from 18 to 21.

At the student rally, a young woman who said she was studying to be a teacher complained that politicians "carry out their election campaign on the backs of dead people." She declined to give her name.

Speakers targeted journalists, especially photographers and TV crews, for their harshest criticism.

"Why are the media doing this?" Stefan Walluhn, a university student and rally organizer, said from the stage. "There's a financial interest. The financial interest is higher than human relationships.... Objective reporting, fine, but it's not necessary to show brutal pictures again and again."

After many other speakers heaped abuse on reporters, often using obscenities, Michael Pletinski, a cameraman for Erfurt TV, went to the microphone.

"Who of you saw something brutal on Erfurt TV?" he asked. "We were working for three days, day and night, to give objective information to the citizens of Erfurt. If you throw all media and all reporters in one pot, think about what you do."

The rally took on an increasingly political tone as it progressed, with speakers debating whether to march to the state education offices to demand that authorities pay more attention to students' concerns.

"If you think you can turn this into some left-wing demonstration, you are stupid," a teenager finally told the crowd. "We are mourning."

In front of Gutenberg school, there were no such conflicts. Streams of somber children and adults continued to bring flowers and pay their respects.

Among them was Foulemtou Toure, 12, a sixth-grader at a nearby school, who contributed a sheet of paper with rain clouds drawn on one side, a bright sun on the other, and the words: "Like lightning, a hateful event hit us. We shouldn't remember it with hate, but instead overcome it."

"The rain is the sad event," she said, explaining her artwork. "And when you overcome it, then comes the sun."

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