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“All of us together - we made it Terror.”

With these words the German journalist Martin Breitkopf described what happened during the hours directly after the shooting in the Olympia shopping mall in Munich on the 22 July 2016. For several hours Munich was dominated by a state of exception and an exceptional fear of terrorism threw thousands of people into panic. This year in July – two years after the rampage - the German TV channel “Bayrischer Rundfunk” broadcasted a documentary which tried to find answers to the question: what happened in Munich at that time that caused everything to escalate into the state of emergency. In this documentary several witnesses and people who had been involved as policemen, doctors, journalists etc. are telling the spectator their personal memories of that night, always trying to answer the question: Why did it escalate the way it did?


In the context of the state of emergency Carl Schmitt is considered an indispensable theorist. Carl Schmitt was a conservative German jurist and political theorist. He is regarded as one of the most important critics of liberalism and parliamentary democracy and an advocate of a powerful president as the head of the executive. His works are still relevant nowadays, but the importance of his academic legacy is highly controversial, due to his theoretical support and collaboration with the National Socialism in Germany.

In 1922, Schmitt published his famous work on the state of exception: Political Theology, where he presented his theory of sovereignty. He began this paper with the famous phrase: “Sovereign is he who decides on the state of exception.” Viewed in the context of the happenings in Munich, this sentence gains a new relevance and raises the question which authority could be called to account for the state of exception in Munich – on 22 of July 2016.

Therefore, it is necessary to first of all give a short overview of Carl Schmitt’s theory of the state of exception. For Schmitt the state of exception cannot be separated from the political phenomenon of sovereignty. He attaches an enormous importance to the state of exception - as ‘moment of suspension of the entire existing order’ - for the constitution of sovereignty. The condition of state disorder for Schmitt therefore becomes the central parameter and based on this, he defines state sovereignty. The main feature of sovereign’s constitution is according to his theory: who decides in case of conflict what the public order and security, “le salut public” consists of. For Schmitt this case of conflict or state of exception can never be legally defined. The only possibility would be to paraphrase it, for example as ‘case of endangering the existence of the state’. He continues arguing, that only the state of emergency causes the need for a sovereign, who then needs to decide whether the extreme state of emergency is present and further on needs to decide how to proceed to dispose it.

In Munich, on 22 July 2016 at 17:52 CEST a gunman opened fire at a MacDonald’s restaurant nearby the Olympia shopping mall in Munich. He killed nine people and severely hurt another five victims by gunshots. During the following hours scenarios of mass panic controlled the city of Munich. In the period directly after the shooting until midnight, the police department of Munich received 4310 emergency calls, among them 310 announcements about further terror attacks at 71 places in the city. Not a single one of these announcements turned out to have been a serious threat. Through the channels of social media and short and instant messaging services panic spread all over the city. Since around 19:00 CEST the rumor circulated that there had also been shots in the city center and that there were armed terrorists somewhere in the city. Up to three perpetrators were mentioned. Suspicions like this were never verified by any official authority, but by being shared thousands of times via social media they reached a gigantic influence and fueled the panic. The research work of a big German newspaper the “Süddeutsche Zeitung” showed which huge effect the mentioning of a crucial catchphrase had on Twitter. 150 minutes after the happening at the shopping mall the police published the suspicion of a terroristic attack in an official press report for the first time. Up to this time Twitter posts were already dominated by terror suspicions and due to the publication of the police the hysteria on Twitter reached its climax, with 366 Tweets per minute. At 20:36 CEST the term ‘terror’ was mentioned in 196 Tweets. It took until after midnight for the situation to calm down. At 1:26 CEST the police officially gave the all-clear via Twitter. The only perpetrator had shot himself and was found dead. Munich awoke from its panic. The state of exception was over.


Contemplating these hours of panic, thinking about Carl Schmitt’s words: “Sovereign is he who decides on the state of exception”, one could make the assertion that the media, in particular single journalists, who had published not verified speculations about a shooting in the city center, were in a position of sovereignty. During the 150 minutes between the shooting at the shopping mall and the first official press report of the police at 20:29 CEST, a vacuum of sovereignty was created, due to the lack of official information. This state of vacuum was the crucial stage for freelance journalists, to sell their photos, videos and speculations to the international press and TV stations. One of them, Marc Müller, who was the first one to publish the speculation about a second shooting in the city center, reflects about this in the TV documentary and admits: “At that moment I did not have in mind how far reaching the consequences would be.” A fatal misjudgment of the situation and a decisive step into the state of exception for Munich.

In the end it is absolutely impossible to find that one instance of authority that would have been able to avoid the mass panic and state of emergency in Munich on that 22 July 2016. All the investigations, that had been launched afterwards in order to find an explanation for the situation showed, that it was the sum of a feeling of insurance, a lack of official information, rashly published speculations and an unprecedented influence of social media channels and Twitter. For the duration of six hours the total of all these individual factors had the power of a sovereign that ‘decided’: it’s a state of exception.


by: Anna Neudert

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