Munich attack: Germans voice fresh concerns over mass shooting threats

People visiting a memorial to the nine people who were killed Friday say they are worried about large gatherings now, even though they were relieved the attack appears not to be linked to Islamic terrorism. 

Jens Meyer/AP
People gather Saturday to read tributes outside the Olympia shopping center, where a shooting Friday left nine people dead in Munich, Germany.

When a deadly shooting rampage unfolded here on Friday, many initially assumed it was a scenario they had long feared: a major terrorist attack carried out by Islamic State loyalists. Then speculation swung in the opposite direction: Was the gunman motivated by anger at Germany’s welcoming of hundreds of thousands of Muslim refugees and migrants?

As both sides readied their talking points on an issue that has roiled Germany in the last year, a different picture of the shooter emerged: an 18-year-old with a history of being bullied, who was reportedly receiving psychiatric treatment and had an apparent obsession with mass shootings. Police have not released evidence that he had political or ideological motives.

Now, as Germans mourn the nine mostly young people gunned down in a restaurant and shopping mall, many Munich residents expressed relief that the attack did not seem to be carried out by an Islamic militant. Yet now they face the question of how to deal with a different type of deadly violence: the type of mass shootings that have become tragically common in the United States.

“I’m happy it wasn’t a terrorist attack,” says Cheyenne Holzer, a kindergarten teacher who came to lay flowers Saturday at a makeshift memorial at the site of the shooting. But the violence left her shaken, and fearing more. “I told my parents I won’t go to Oktoberfest, and I think many people won’t go now. Tourism will be down.”

Though she noted authorities have promised to take security measures to protect the famous Munich festival, she said that did not make her feel safe: “They can build walls, but still anyone can do this.”

Many Germans have worried that the wave of deadly Islamic State (IS) attacks like those perpetrated in France and Belgium would eventually make their way to Germany. This shooting came just over a week after the Bastille Day attack in Nice, France, that left 84 dead and was claimed by IS, and an attack by a young asylum seeker in Würzberg, Germany, last week that left five people seriously wounded. The Islamic State claimed responsibility for the Würzberg attack. When Friday’s shooting began, Munich flooded the city with police officers, shutting down mass transit, and ordering people off the streets while they searched for the shooter.

Identified in German media as Ali David Sonboly, he committed suicide when police found him hours later. Police are now investigating how he obtained the handgun and ammunition used in the attack. Germany strengthened gun control laws in the wake of two deadly school shootings in 2002 and 2009, in particular making it difficult for young people to buy guns. 

Munich’s police chief, Hubertus Andrae, told a press conference that officers found articles about mass shootings when they searched the shooter’s home, as well as a German edition of an academic book on school shootings. The attack came on the fifth anniversary of Anders Breivik’s deadly shooting rampage in Norway that killed 77 people, leading to speculation that the shooter was connected to his far-right ideology. But Mr. Andrae said there was no evidence the shooter, who was born in Germany and had German and Iranian nationality, was linked to the so-called Islamic State or acted out of anger over the refugee issue.

Refugees nervous

Many of the refugees who’ve recently arrived in Germany were holding their collective breath until they learned the shooter didn’t come from their midst.

“Thank God the shooter was not a refugee,” said a Tunisian man who lives in the neighborhood where the attack took place and gave only his first initial, K. His 14-year-old son was in the same school class with one of the young victims, and he came to the memorial Saturday with his wife and young daughter.

He said an attack by an asylum seeker or Islamic militant would have provoked a strong backlash against refugees and Muslims in a country where many are already angry that German Chancellor Angela Merkel welcomed the refugees and migrants who began streaming into Europe in large numbers last year, most fleeing conflict in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan. There have been multiple attacks on refugee housing, and far-right parties opposed to immigration are gaining support. Last week the anti-immigration movement Pegida, which is hostile to Muslims, announced it will seek to form a political party.

Addressing the nation, Chancellor Merkel said she was “mourning with a heavy heart,” and that it was understandable that Germans are asking “am I safe?”

Nino Pataraia, an au pair who lives in the neighborhood where the attack took place, spent four hours sheltered in a restaurant Friday while the city was on lockdown. People were running the streets, and inside the restaurant people huddled and cried, she said. She was so shaken by the experience she said she might spend a few days inside.

But she also praised the way people came together and helped each other during the crisis. Ordinary people, restaurants, and mosques opened their doors to shelter people while the lockdown was in place. When it ended, mass transit was still shut down and there were no taxis in the streets, said Ms. Pataraia, but a random passerby gave her a ride home.

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