A Storm in an Orchestra Pit

Germany is still in denial about the reality of modern terrorism.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel

BERLIN—“Self-censorship out of fear” is how German Chancellor Angela Merkel described the decision. One of her allies accused a great cultural institution of “falling on its knees.” The word kowtow was thrown around, along with appeasement and cowardice—and all because the Deutsche Oper in Berlin canceled its production of Mozart’s Idomeneo for fear that the avant-garde production’s final, unscripted scene (in which the king of Crete somewhat inexplicably lugs onstage the severed heads of Jesus, Buddha, Poseidon, and Mohammed) might offend Muslim sensibilities and create a security risk.

At some level, this overdue display of unity by Germany’s cultural and political elite was truly heartwarming (and the sort of thing I said I was hoping for two weeks ago). Still, I would feel even more encouraged had the same elite not stayed relatively silent two weeks ago, following the far more dangerous spat over a papal theological lecture in Regensburg. After all, Pope Benedict’s quotation of a Byzantine emperor who called Islam a faith “spread by the sword” led not just to a substitution of Verdi for Mozart but to riots, murder, and the torching of churches. Apparently, it’s a lot easier for Germans to support the intellectual freedom of an avant-garde opera director, Hans Neuenfels, who proclaims himself “against organized religion,” than it is to support the intellectual freedom of organized religion itself, particularly when real violence is involved.

Never mind. The real and so far mostly undiscussed lesson of this storm in an orchestra pit lies elsewhere. In fact, the fuss over the Deutsche Oper and its bloody heads demonstrates that Germany, like much of Europe, still remains totally unprepared for the reality of modern terrorism. Let’s be completely honest here: If there had been real intelligence about a real bomb that was set to go off during Act 2 of Idomeneo, no one would have cried “artistic freedom” or blamed any opera director—anywhere—for canceling a performance. But instead of offering real intelligence, security officials last summer sent the Deutsche Oper’s inexperienced director, Kirsten Harms, a vague warning of possible threats. Then they left her hanging. With no way to measure these threats, and no one, it seems, much interested in discussing them—this was August—Harms decided to cancel Idomeneo, because, she told a friend, “it’s my responsibility to protect my house.”

It wasn’t a good decision, but given the vacuum in which it was taken, it wasn’t a surprising one, either. As a Washingtonian who has always been skeptical about the need to examine every child’s backpack at the entrance to the Air and Space Museum, I can say that the near absence of security at museums and monuments in Berlin is delightful. I’d feel a lot better, though, if I were certain that the absence of metal detectors reflected the absence of threat.

In truth, the fact that Germany still hasn’t experienced a Madrid- or London-style bombing is thanks to good luck, not good planning: As recently as last July, German police discovered two unexploded—because they were badly designed—suitcase bombs on a train. That Germany contains the kinds of radicals who could and would carry out such a threat is beyond doubt: Mohamed Atta, leader of the Sept. 11 bombers, studied in Hamburg. That Germans don’t want to think about this is beyond dispute, too: More than 80 percent told pollsters that they don’t feel personally threatened by terrorism at all.

I don’t know how many Americans feel personally threatened, but in Washington and New York, along with major state capitals, American political leaders do start with the assumption that such a threat is real. For better or for worse, after Sept. 11, we created the Homeland Security Department, hired new people, and built a lot of ugly fences in Washington. For better or for worse, we reorganized our intelligence services and rethought our foreign policy. This isn’t to say that the homeland-security debate (let alone the foreign-policy debate) in the United States is perfect—or even intelligent: As the flood of New Orleans well demonstrated, it also meant that older risks were ignored.

But at least there is a debate in the United States, at least there are policies, and at least some American institutions—schools, newspapers, local governments, museums—have tried to think through the consequences of a terrorist attack. By contrast, it’s not unusual in Germany, or elsewhere in Europe, to hear that the war on terrorism is phony, a jumped-up invention of the Bush administration and the U.S. press, a pretend reason for the invasion of Iraq, a laughably stupid way of conning voters—and a pathetic excuse for limiting artistic freedom. One 2004 poll found that more than half of the French, nearly half of the Germans, and a third of the British think the United States has overreacted to the terrorist threat.

Or, to put it differently: Neither the events of Sept. 11 nor any of the bombings that followed seem to have convinced Europeans that anything important has changed in the world. I only wish they were right.