German openness gave cover to plotters

Questions: In Hamburg, once home to Sept. 11 suspects, residents wonder if their nation's tolerance contributed to the attacks.

2001 9/11 2002

One Year

September 08, 2002|By Todd Richissin | Todd Richissin,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

HAMBURG, Germany - Ruediger Bendlin, for the longest time, took a certain pride in how his country dealt with its past, with Hitler and the brutality of the Third Reich. The response by him and by many other Germans was to extend hands further, open minds wider, become more tolerant and - through law and politics - demonstrate that their country was not made up of the ghosts of monsters.

It was a noble approach that Bendlin feels contributed to the disaster of Sept. 11.

Technical University, where he worked as a professor and now is a spokesman, helped incubate - however unwittingly - three of the terrorists who died in the attacks on the United States. Other Technical students have been arrested. Others are under suspicion. It was his university that extended its hands to students, not knowing they were, or would become, terrorists.

For almost everyone in Hamburg, Muslims and non-Muslims, the attacks caused harm measured in ways other than long lines at airports or delays in securing visas. The attacks have led many here to question how to champion tolerance and disavow prejudice while knowing that acquaintances of the hijackers might still be in the city.

"They were dealing with and had access to all the friendliness and all the attributes we've used to overcome the historical burns that we carry with us as Germans," Bendlin, 40, says of the student hijackers. "And they took all of that, and they used it against us. I don't know whether they knew it or not, but they used it."

His tone, even now, is disbelieving. The hijackers - including Mohamed Atta, the presumed ringleader who was an engineering student through the latter half of the 1990s - managed to seem like any of the other 4,500 students seeking degrees in such subjects as computer engineering and city planning.

Even during the period when, according to law enforcement officials, Atta was being trained by al-Qaida in Afghanistan - in late 1999 and early 2000 - he was registered as a continuing education student, his absence unnoticed because he was not required to attend classes.

Such deception and the terror it helped create have severely damaged bonds between the Muslims and non-Muslims in the country. And nowhere has that damage been more pronounced than in Hamburg, where the population of about 1.7 million includes a Muslim community of 100,000 better integrated into the rest of society than probably anywhere else in the country.

Technical University was used by Atta, suspected of piloting a plane into one of the World Trade Center towers, and by Marwan al-Shehhi, suspected of crashing the second plane in New York. They lived, at one time or another, in a bland white house less than a mile from the campus, with Ziad Jarrahi, suspected of flying the plane that crashed in Pennsylvania. Mounir el-Motassadeq, another Technical student, was charged last month by German authorities with helping plan the attacks. Two other students here have been charged but not found.

Now, a group of Muslim students meets in a study area here and educators secretly phone the police to report "suspicious activity." Muslim students who once got no more attention than anybody else on campus get that extra-second look, that questioning one, which speaks more loudly than any protest chant.

`I don't fear Muslims'

"What do I make of a person who starts growing a beard or shaves his head? Should I fear him?" asks Peter Staehlin, 23, a Munich-born junior at Technical who had met Atta - and thought nothing suspicious of him. "The answer is, I don't fear Muslims."

He knows this was his answer before Sept. 11, that different cultures were to be embraced rather than feared, welcomed rather than ostracized. He says this is his answer still. But he sits uneasily in his chair in the student union talking about his reaction to Muslims on his campus now. Staehlin's remarks, like Bendlin's, come in a tone of confession, almost of shame.

"One does think," the young man concedes, looking at his hands, "when you see Muslims in a group, could they be planning something?"

Those are the thoughts that Ali Erturan, a Muslim of Turkish descent, faces daily. It does not matter that he was born in Germany. It does not matter that he says he feels betrayed, too. Is it not logical for Bendlin and Staehlin to fear he could be one of the "sleeper" terrorists the world has been warned about?

"I understand the fear," says Erturan, 29, who studies computer sciences. He says this from a room, behind a vegetable stand, which has been converted into a mosque, one which Atta had visited.

"That doesn't mean the fear is logical," Erturan continues. "Look, I cannot even bear the thought of having prayed with one of them in the same room by accident. But it's not logical for me to look for sleepers in a mosque. A religion or a community has nothing to do with terror. It's individuals. These ones called themselves Muslim."

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