A soft form of terrorism finds its way onto the streets of Hamburg

The ugly events of this weekend expose a fundamental flaw of democracy, writes Colin Randall

Several rioters in Hamburg tried to get a better vantage point of the action during the summit last week. Christof Stache / AFP

Among the rampaging mobs that have done their utmost to turn Hamburg into a war zone, comparisons with terrorism would outrage all but the most militant or psychopathic.

But their indignation, if undoubtedly self-serving, may be misplaced. To many who spent the days leading to and during the G20 summit in the German city, the actions of a sizeable minority of the thousands of protesters have resembled precisely that: a soft form of terrorism.

Consider the consequences of the anti-capitalist demonstrations: bruised and bleeding police officers, attacks on civilian security men, blazing vehicles, improvised firearms, sabotaged transport systems, smashed windows and mass attempts to storm buildings.

Chancellor Angela Merkel, a renowned daughter of Hamburg, puts it well. Peaceful protest has its proper place in democratic society, she argues, but violence on the scale witnessed endangers human life.

On the streets, I have met plenty of decent people who sincerely hold capitalism and globalisation responsible for what is wrong in the world. They correctly proclaim their right to make known their feelings but while blaming “heavy-handed” policing for inciting riots, disapprove of the violence carried out in their name.

Yet like it or not, they are fellow travellers in a movement that is making a mockery of vaunted western values in favour of free expression and respect for an outlook detached from traditional mainstream politics. Carnival-style procession of protesters may be a colourful distraction or, if they impede free movement, a tolerable nuisance; the extreme actions of large numbers of the anti-G20 hordes are calculated to terrorise not only the authorities but people going about their daily lives.

It is the thin end of the wedge of terror, territory also occupied by groups of workers in neighbouring France who blockade ports and towns, paralyse public transport, burn down public buildings, hold bosses hostage in their offices, trash supermarket shelves and hijack lorries.

ISIL and similar groups, bent on mass or selective murder, naturally represent evil in a truer, more absolute form. Simple acts of civil disobedience are not in remotely the same category.

But a willingness to inflict serious injury or worse on others, or to consider it an unfortunate but, strictly speaking, unintended by-product of peacetime resistance, is not only contemptible but shunts protest along to a thicker section of that wedge.

In self-justification, militants say that if action causes no disruption or harm it is meaningless, or that their views are ignored if they remain within the law. But have Hamburg rioters really focused new and more incisive attention on the perceived shortcomings of the way most developed countries run their economies? I hear many people in Germany talking about the effects of violent protest, but virtually no one prepared to say: “You know, these people have such a good point.”

The ugly events of Hamburg also expose a fundamental flaw of democracy. The perpetrators have numbers but not sufficient to give them any kind of mandate. So when people take to the streets in this way, they willfully sidestep the democratic process, just as rebellious French workers and students suppose they are somehow invoking the spirit of 1968 by disregarding the inconvenience of a centrist new president, Emmanuel Macron, and plotting an autumn of discontent.

And among the casualties still to come may be the very defender of the anti-G20 throng’s right to be heard -- Angela Merkel, often described as the world’s most powerful woman. If voters hold her partly responsible for the riots, faulting her insistence on a big-city venue instead of some remote, more easily protected outpost, she could find herself out of office come Germany’s elections in September.