Baader-Meinhof, Edward Snowden and learning the 'right' lesson

The American government treats Edward Snowden like a member of al-Qaeda or the Baader-Meinhof Group. This violation of Snowden's human rights illustrates how governments tend to seriously restrict their citizens' freedoms by overreacting to an exposure of the vulnerability of the state. Then there is the fact that I hesitate to write this...

Kevin Frech
25 July 2013

In 1981, I went to live with my dad in Stuttgart, West Germany. I soon noticed posters advertising the biggest show in town, a political thriller with a sexy-looking young cast, and it was playing everywhere. Only this wasn’t a movie, it was real life: the Baader-Meinhof Group was freaking out the nation. 

In 1981, I went to live with my dad in Stuttgart, West Germany. I soon noticed posters advertising the biggest show in town, a political thriller with a sexy-looking young cast, and it was playing everywhere. Only this wasn’t a movie, it was real life: the Baader-Meinhof Group was freaking out the nation. 

Stammheim Prison built a special wing for the notorious terrorists, and it loomed dull and grey over the nearby autobahn. The founding members of Baader-Meinhof spent three years in total isolation before being transferred here, where their cells were bugged and their conversations with their lawyers were recorded, in violation of German law. At Stammheim they alternately ignored and fought a farcically inept show trial in which the outcome was never in doubt, and staged hunger strikes protesting their treatment. They died three years before I had arrived, all committing suicide, according to the official reports. Yet I discovered the Baader-Meinhof group was stronger than ever.

Active members were a regular feature on the evening news, where grim-faced officials issued warnings and journalists speculated on future attacks. What was the status of the latest manhunts?  Were the terrorists in Bonn or Berlin, or had they fled to Paris or Amsterdam? Since I was a blond teenager, I was regularly stopped by Polizei officers conducting street sweeps, examining me over the barrels of their machine pistols as they asked for my papers. It was an early, Germanic version of Stop-and-Frisk.

The lessons intended by the West German government were clear: We will prevail. Baader-Meinhof remains marginalized. They can’t escape us. Do what we say, don’t look too closely at our methods, and West Germany will remain safe.

Only that wasn’t what I learned. I didn’t see an all-powerful government calmly handling a problem. Instead I saw that it took just 20 people my age – young adults – to cripple a nation. Their faces stared defiantly back at us from those wanted posters all through the town, and even the surveillance photos emphasized their power, showing them laughing over cigarettes in cafes or swaggering down streets like movie stars at a Cannes festival premiere. It was the police photographers who had to work in the shadows.These young men and women were the talk of the cafés and bars. Yes Baader-Meinhof were undeniably big, maybe even bigger than Phil Collins, whose inescapable “Something in the Air Tonight” echoed out of every Bierhalle door in town, its long low buildup and explosive riot of percussion matching the tension in the city. In fact, the wanted posters hung beside the ones advertising his first solo tour.

Those police street sweeps felt flailing and desperate. It was obvious these draconian searches would never catch a terrorist, so what was the purpose? They were intended to frighten young people like me, to deter us from joining or aiding the terrorists. I’d never even heard the term “terrorist” before I arrived in Stuttgart, and suddenly the government presumed that’s exactly what I was.

“The urban guerilla aims to destroy the ruling machinery of the state… to destroy the myth of the omnipresence of the system and its invulnerability,” Ulrike Meinhof wrote in The Urban Guerilla Concept. It seemed clear to me that the Baader-Meinhof Group had made this point. The West Germans now in power, whose parents had come of age during the Nazi era, were desperate to portray themselves as a nation transformed, a new free and democratic state with protected civil liberties. The treatment of the Baader-Meinhof Group in prison and the huge overreaction by the government on the streets proved otherwise. 

Stammheim Prison

Stammheim Prison in Stuttgart, Germany. Wikimedia. Some rights reserved

News organizations pushed the government line, first painting the terrorists as naïve college dropouts and low-life criminals, then boasting of how new security measures were keeping us safe from this terrible enemy. It was a schizophrenic message, and it didn’t resemble the conversations I was having with people my age. The police harassment we encountered gave rise to real anger and feelings that the government had betrayed the nation’s ideals. I felt forced into the extremely uncomfortable position of despising the Baader-Meinhof Group’s violent methods while accepting that they had shone a light on real problems.

Three decades later I was in downtown New York, watching the second plane hit the World Trade Tower on September 11.  President George W. Bush informed us that al-Qaeda “hate us for our freedoms”, and then promptly took away many of those same freedoms. The right to free speech could get you arrested as a terrorist sympathizer. You could no longer congregate in large groups, unless the government first issued a permit. Body scanners were installed at airports, recording your most intimate parts for everyone to examine. Al-Qaeda was “…a radical ideological movement,” claimed the 9/11 commission while the US religious right worked to enact “faith-based” laws in our nation. “It is very important to concentrate on hitting the US economy through all means possible,” proclaimed Osama bin Laden in a shout-out to Malcolm X, and after the attack our economy slipped into a recession that lasted to 2003.

I thought back uncomfortably to West Germany. I saw the same over-reaction, the willingness to throw aside our most important rights in the mistaken belief that it would make us feel safer. Worse, it gave al-Qaeda’s terrorists the appearance of extraordinary powers. If I were a teenager in Cairo or Manila or Nairobi; angry, unemployed, and undernourished, I might have learned the same lessons from al-Qaeda that Baader-Meinhof taught me. If success is defined as achieving one’s goals, hadn’t al-Qaeda taken away our freedoms, knocked down our economy, and opened the floodgates to laws based on religion? All that took was 19 determined men, and we all-too-quickly caved in to our fears.

I write this as Bradley Manning’s defense rests in the case against him. He is being charged as a traitor, directly aiding our enemies. But Manning didn’t offer the information to al-Qaeda or the Taliban or Hezbollah; he sought to give information to a US news organization – first the Washington Post, then the New York Times, and when both of those journals were unwilling to tell the American public what was being done in their name, he went to WikiLeaks as a modern news organization. And like a member of Baader-Meinhof, Manning spent years imprisoned at Quantico in solitary confinement, forced to sleep naked in his cell without even sheets or pillows for his bed.

His treatment has been condemned by countless human rights groups. Why treat him this way? If he’s already leaked the information, what more damage can he do? No, this extreme punishment prior to conviction is to make an example of him, to prevent the next generation of whistleblowers from daring to speak up.

It didn’t work. Despite our government locking up Bradley Manning like some comic book supervillain, Edward Snowden failed to learn the intended lesson. “It’s important to send a message to government that people will not be intimidated,” he said upon revealing his identity as the person who leaked the NSA documents to the Guardian and Washington Post.

Yes, a government can imprison, torture or even kill those who refuse to obey, but eventually it will run out of citizens that way.  You can’t lead if people refuse to follow, and it only takes the right issue at the right time to tip public sentiment. This is the fear of any government, that just a few people can easily pierce the veil of its omnipotence and invulnerability. From the Boston Tea Party to the Bolsheviks, that’s how revolutions start.

Baader-Meinhof used horrific and misguided means to try and push West Germany closer to their personal vision. Al-Qaeda slaughtered thousands to try and force the American government to betray our ideals. Manning and Snowden used non-violent means in an attempt to force our government to return to those same ideals it abandoned in its pursuit of al-Qaeda. In each case, it’s ordinary people exercising real power against a government. It will always be an individual choice that puts that knowledge to either good or evil use.

I can’t help wondering if writing this will add my name to some elevated threat list. Making the observation that governments are more vulnerable than they pretend shouldn’t be a treasonous thought, but we now know “treason” is whatever the government finds inconvenient. The fact that I hesitate to write this is in itself a diminution of free speech.

Today Snowden lives at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport. Our government is so hell-bent on punishing him that it has forced the European nations we’ve spied on into an uncomfortable position – they’ve blocked their airspace to Snowden, the man who publically told their citizens that we were watching them. That they do this shows they must have benefited from the US spying on their citizens – and that they willingly violate their own principles on our behalf. When it was rumoured Snowden was on the plane of the Bolivian president, our allies forced his plane to land and searched it. Treating a foreign leader like a common smuggler caused an international incident, but we seem to be past caring about that.

Where before it took a small group, now one man is forcing a nation to confront its own compromises in trading actual freedom for perceived security. Today his impact transcends national borders. Despite what my government tells me, I don’t see Snowden as a traitor, causing “irreversible damage to the US” as NSA director Keith Alexander put it. That’s an extraordinary statement. It indicates he sees the government as the real America and we citizens are enemies needing to be constantly watched.  Snowden’s “treason” is daring to tell us all the truth - that our own government spies on us daily, treating us like we are all members of Baader-Meinhof or al-Qaeda. Even before Snowden’s revelations, I doubt many terrorists assumed their electronic communications were safe, but most American citizens certainly did.

I can only hope that future Edward Snowdens continue to learn the same wrong lessons.

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