The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The Germany Yom Kippur attack shows it is past time to focus on the enemy within

People mourn on the marketplace in Halle, Germany, on Thursday. Two people were killed Wednesday in front of a synagogue. (Clemens Bilan/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)

YET AGAIN, the peace of an innocent religious community has been murderously disrupted by an ultra-right-wing terrorist. This time, the attack came in Halle, Germany, against a synagogue on the holiest day of the Jewish calendar, Yom Kippur. The alleged perpetrator, a 27-year-old German man, was arrested, but not before he shot two innocent people to death. All that stood between the world and the specter of a much larger crime — up to 80 people, including 10 U.S. citizens, were at prayer — was the synagogue’s locked door, which the terrorist failed to breach, despite using explosives. Whether this was because of the barrier’s strength or the perpetrator’s incompetence has not yet been determined. Those who speak of a miracle have good reason.

As a policy matter for Germany, the United States and all other civilized countries, what’s important is not the actual death toll but the intended one, and the particular aim that the deaths were supposed to serve. Abundant evidence speaks of a connection, at least ideological and, perhaps, more tangible than that, between the young right-wing radical in Halle and others like him who previously carried out mass murders at a synagogue in Pittsburgh, mosques in New Zealand and a Walmart in El Paso. According to statements the Halle perpetrator made before and during his live-streamed deeds, immigration and feminism were imperiling the white race, and “the root of all these problems is the Jew.” “If I fail and die but kill a single Jew, it was worth it,” the attacker wrote in a manifesto first reported by the International Center for the Study of Radicalization and Political Violence, a research organization at King’s College London. “After all, if every White Man kills just one, we win.”

In short, the world’s democracies now face not only populist political movements that traffic in racial and anti-immigrant demagoguery, whether in the form of President Trump’s worst rhetoric, or that of Germany’s Trumpists, the Alternative for Germany party. Beyond the realm of electoral politics, there is an international, Internet-savvy threat from ultra-right-wing, white-supremacist and anti-Semitic terrorists, inspired in part, apparently, by Anders Breivik, the Norwegian self-described fascist who slaughtered 77 people in 2011. Whether copycats or conspirators, they are as indifferent to their own survival as any Islamist suicide bomber, as hostile to Western values of freedom — and as bent on maximum propaganda impact. This threat has festered while Middle East-based terrorist groups have been, understandably, the focus of U.S. and allied security agencies.

Vigilance in that direction must continue; but it is past time to devote similar resources and attention to the apparent enemy within, as the Department of Homeland Security, to its credit, has recently pledged to do. Germany’s politicians, stunned for obvious historical reasons by the fact that one of their nation’s young people would attempt such a crime — having first gone online to spout Holocaust denial — have responded with unanimous denunciations of not only the crime in Halle but also the mind-set behind it. What remains for them, and for us, is to match words with deeds.

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