Right now, large sections of the world’s media are full of reports of the events that happened in front of the main railway station in Cologne on New Year’s Eve. A lot of these reports make harrowing reading: according to at least some of them, about a thousand men of swarthy appearance sexually assaulted and raped a number of women.
The impression you may have got from this is of a thousand immigrants descending on the station forecourt and basically gang-raping dozens of women, while police and fellow revellers looked on impassively. You may ask, as many have, why it took so long for this to be reported, and why the German government isn’t condemning it.
Except that that’s not quite what happened.
What actually happened is still the subject of a police investigation. And I don’t want to downplay the absolute awfulness of the incident: unless 80 or 90 women have deliberately filed false charges, at least that number of women were sexually assaulted. That behaviour is unacceptable, and has no place in any society. I was brought up never to touch women against their will. The people who did this need to be found and punished, and there is no excuse for molesting women (or men, for that matter) and making them fear for their safety.
So, let’s take it as read that I am not in any way trying to excuse the people who did this, and move on.
The reports circulating in even very respectable sections of the media are confused and partly contradict each other. Fortunately for us, my local paper this morning carried an article explaining what, actually, the police are saying about the event, and it’s not very much.
Firstly, there were actually two different incidents, although they may be connected (part of the police investigation is involved in establishing whether or not there is a link).
In the first incident, a group of men, as many as 1,000, started throwing bangers into the crowd, prompting the police to move in and clear the area to prevent a panic.
This needs some explanation. A central feature of German New Year’s Eve celebration, as it is in many parts of the world, is noisy fireworks. This goes back to an ancient tradition in which evil spirits were to be scared off at the start of the new year. But unlike, say, Guy Fawke’s Night in the UK, German New Year’s Eve sees members of the public buying vast arsenals of fireworks and letting them off in public spaces, which is great fun for the emergency services who have nothing better to do than put out fires and rush people to hospital.
So, that was one thing. 1,000 men irresponsibly throwing little fireworks around. That’s where the number 1,000 came from.
The sexual assaults happened after that. Victims reported finding themselves surrounded by a small group of men and groped, and then discovering they’d been robbed. At least one of the reported incidents was so severe, that it may fit the legal definition of rape.
The “legal definition of rape”, by the way, is a concept you have to be careful with. Different legal systems define rape in different ways, which is why you can’t compare statistics (Sweden has a very high incidence of rape at least partly because it has an unusually wide definition of rape).
In the case of Germany, section 177 of the penal code (§ 177 StGB) talks of sexual assault and rape as essentially the same thing. Sexual assault is committed when a person uses the threat of violence to force the victim to perform a sexual act or allow a sexual act to be performed on them. It is considered more serious if some sort of penetration occurs, which is what is meant by “the legal definition of rape”. It doesn’t matter, by the way, whether the attacker penetrates the victim or forces the victim to penetrate him (or, much more rarely of course, her). And it also doesn’t matter which body part penetrates what orifice. I don’t know the details of the attack (only the people involved and the police know that), but that could, if I’ve understood correctly, be a French kiss. Which is horrible and distressing and rightly considered rape; but in a crowd it’s the sort of thing that could happen right next to you without noticing. It’s not as if the victim was stripped of her underwear and forced to undergo brutal vaginal sex right under the noses of the police as everybody else stood by and did nothing.
What happened was bad. It’s just not what the press seem to think happened.
Basically, these two things were conflated by the press. Certainly, the police are trying to establish whether there is a connection. So far they’re only saying that it’s “conceivable” that some of the men who had been throwing bangers around were also involved in the sexual assaults.
What the police seem to think they’re looking at here — and this is me reading between the lines, not anything that’s been said officially — is a band of pickpockets. Well, yes, they’re also guilty of sexual assault, but the victims reported also having their things stolen. The sexual assault, it seems, wasn’t what it was about. The sexual assault was being used as a distraction to allow the theft to take place. It’s a frightning new version of one of the oldest tricks in the book.
Which doesn’t make the sexual assault any better. We’re looking at people who are prepared to violate women simply to be able commit acts of petty theft. There’s nothing “better” about that.
EDIT, 20:00 CET: The police have announced that they’re looking into the possibility of this being a case of organised crime. A number of suspects have been identified, but there are conflicting reports over how many, and whether they have been arrested or whether some individuals who were arrested a few days ago are included in that number.
But this has been spun out into a story of a thousand men forcing themselves on a much smaller number of women. People are talking about this as if this was some act of gang-rape on a massive scale. How can women possibly defend themselves, they’re asking, when they’re surrounded by a thousand men as they’re being brutally raped?
That didn’t happen. The number of men involved in the sexual assault is unknown. It could be as few as five. It could be as many as thirty or forty. There was an alarmingly high number of incidents in which individual women were molested by a small number of men. That’s pretty much all we know.
All this is bad enough. But things have got worse. I don’t mean to say, by the way, that what happened next was worse than the sexual assault. I mean that what happened next made an already awful situation just a bit more awful.
The incident didn’t initially get a great deal of attention. It was reported, but the scale of what had happened wasn’t known. Part of the reason for this is that eighty or ninety women didn’t all file charges en masse. Rather, over the next couple of days, women came forward to file charges.
At first, the police will have dutifully taken down the details and sighed heavily: these were serious incidents, but the chances of actually identifying the culprits are very slim. But more and more women came forward, and as the numbers increased, the police slowly came to realise that they were dealing with something really big. Some of the victims will have delayed coming forward because they were too upset or frightened — this is quite a common occurrance.
So it took a few days for the true scale of the incident to become evident. It’s not that the press, or the police, or anyone else, tried to cover it up. It was reported at the time, but was eclipsed by what was, at the time, a much bigger story: police in Munich had been forced to evacuate two railway stations following a credible tip-off of a possible terrorist attack, and were now trying to identify, locate and apprehend the alleged terrorists. That’s the story that grabbed the national headlines and forced the story of what at the time was a small number of women reporting being groped onto the inside pages.
Since then, the latter story has grown. One factor in its growth is the growing realisation that it’s bigger than was originally thought. Unfortunately, a more important factor has been extremist right-wing propaganda.
Most of the victims described their attackers as being of “north African or Arab” appearance.
There are a lot of people in Germany who fit that description. Even I fit that description, even though as far as I can tell I don’t have any ancestors from north Africa or Arabia: but I have encountered people who assumed I was from Spain, Turkey, Israel, Palestine and, on one memorable occasion, Pakistan. Turks have walked up to me and spoken to me in Turkish.
There are, in Germany, nearly three million people who hold or once held Turkish passports, or have at least one parent who was born in Turkey. There are many millions more who have Turkish grandparents. All those people could be said to fit the description.
The problem is that right-wing extremist groups have seized on this. Now, it’s not merely 1,000 men brutally gang-raping women. Now, it’s 1,000 immigrants brutally gang-raping women. And this has led to certain, very loud and abusive, sections of society to lead a crusade against the German government’s policy on the refugee crisis. “This is what happens,” they say, “when we open the floodgates and allow Muslims to invade us.”
Suddenly, this becomes a race issue. Wild, and widely debunked, stories of immigrants have been circulating, alleging things like routine mass rape among Syrian refugees. These stories have been investigated, and they are all false. Studies have been conducted and reveal that the refugees Germany has taken on so far commit crimes at roughly the same rate as native Germans do. It turns out, they’re human too.
And it’s worth pointing out that Germans commit heinous crimes as well. The same newspaper that landed on my breakfast table this morning carrying an article explaining what the actual known facts are also carries a front-page report of the sentencing of a man known only as “Chris” (his full name can’t be published for legal reasons). He set up a Facebook page pretending to be a photographer, and contacted very young women asking them to take part in photo-shoots. He claimed it was part of an anti-alcohol campaign showing the effects of drinking too much, and so persuaded them to down so much alcohol that they passed out. Then he raped them.
I don’t think this is any more or less horrifying than the Cologne incident. It’s just as cold and calculating, with the only real difference being that in the case of “Chris”, the sexual assault was the end, not the means to a different end. Which, materially, doesn’t make that much difference.
If you haven’t heard about “Chris”, it’s not because that case has been hushed up. It’s just not what people on social media are talking about right now.
Similarly, if you hadn’t heard about the Cologne incident until a day or two ago, it’s not because that case was hushed up either. That doesn’t stop extremists from loudly complaining of a cover-up by “the lying press”. Why, they ask, is the press censoring the story? The press isn’t: they just weren’t paying attention.
So now we’re being forced into a conversation about the wisdom of Angela Merkel’s Willkommenskultur, which is not what this story should be about. There is not one single shred of evidence that the one thing has to do with the other, but that’s the narrative that’s being pushed. And because it’s being pushed, it’s what the media are talking about. And so fact becomes confused with propaganda, and the whole issue blows up not necessarily out of proportion, but for the wrong reasons.
And so the mayor of Cologne does what politicians do in these situations: since politicians are routinely criticised when they say nothing about a major news story, they feel the need to say something. Unfortunately, they often make things even worse, especially when caught off-guard.
Much of what Henriette Reker said at her press conference was pretty unremarkable. There is no evidence the offences were committed by refugees. The police are investigating. The scale of the problem only started to become clear the following morning.
Then a journalist asked a question: how could women protect themselves?
Hindsight is a wonderful thing. Perhaps Reker should have recognised the potential for a massive foul-up here, but, with all the grace and diplomacy of an elephant, elected to answer the question.
She should have reframed it. She should have explained that we all have a duty towards each other, and that we are all responsible for our own actions. That victim-blaming is not the right response. That we should be looking at ways of ensuing that women can feel safe without having to take special gender-specific precautions.
But no; she answered the question that was asked, and did so badly.
Not completely badly: take out the "advice for women" part, and some of it is advice I, as a man, have been given: make sure you’re with friends, demand the help of bystanders if you are attacked, report any incidents to the police. Not all of it brilliant advice, but not especially bad; it just shouldn’t have been directed specifically at women.
But one piece of advice she gave stands out as particularly divorced from any semblance of reality: that “there is always the option of keeping a certain distance of at least an arm’s length”. Oh, brilliant.
That was pretty awful. But then social media did its thing and focused on that one sentence. And as a consequence, so did the press. Now it’s no longer even about the actual sexual assault, but about the public shaming of the mayor of Cologne as a victim-blaming rape apologist, as if she had just issued some kind of press release lecturing women on how not to get raped. What it actually is, if we’re going to be honest, is a politician’s stupid answer to a stupid question. The rest of the press conference will be forgotten, and with it, the official version of the current situation. Which in turn suits the right-wing conspiracy theorists.
This whole thing started off being horrific. It’s not being made any better by misreporting, political propaganda and, now, a witch-hunt.
One last thing. Questions are, rightly, being raised about the Cologne Carnival. This is a very famous event in which vast crowds gather: in the light of the police’s failure to keep women safe on New Year’s Eve, how safe are they going to be at the Carnival?
Well, on New Year’s Eve, the police say they were taken by surprise. There were up to 200 officers there, but they weren’t expecting this kind of trouble. It had never happened before.
The police officers’ union says that the police presence was “normal” for this type of event. It wasn’t a demonstration, but a good-natured public gathering. They might have been expecting some incidents: pickpockets are always a problem in crowds, or there might be some isolated drunken brawls, that kind of thing. Sexual assault on such a large scale is something the German police have never before encountered. To quote Dirk Weber, spokesman for the Cologne police: “We are experienced in crowd situations. But we didn’t reckon with this modus operandi.”
The Carnival, though, is a different matter. It’s traditionally associated with the suspension of the usual morals, but unfortunately a lot of men — German men, it must be pointed out — still think that’s a licence for them to, well, basically rape women. As far as Carnival is concered, the police are always on extra high alert for this type of incident.
That’s not say that you’d be safe from sexual assault at Carnival, of course. Sadly, there is always a risk. But on New Year’s Eve, the police were wrongfooted in a way that is, we hope, less likely at Carnival.