BERLIN, Jan. 9 (UPI) -- An increased perception of violence by immigrant youth has sparked a debate about ethnic youth crime in Germany that divides the government in Berlin.
Most Germans have seen this video, whether on YouTube or on national television: Two young men are punching and kicking the head of a pensioner who is lying motionless on the concrete floor of a Munich subway station. Then, one of the men steps back, takes up speed and kicks the head once more in full running. The kid kicks so hard that he has to hold his foot in pain.
The victim, a 76-year-old retired school principal, had asked the pair, a 17-year-old Greek national and a 20-year-old Turkish national, to obey a smoking ban in a subway. When the pensioner left the train, the young men followed him and attacked him from behind. It is sheer luck that he survived.
The incident and several others have shocked Germany. It's the unmasked brutality that has politicians as well as ordinary people asking for ways to prevent similar incidents from happening in the future.
This past weekend the party of Chancellor Angela Merkel called for a series of tougher measures against juvenile delinquents that include steps taken previously in the United States. The chancellor's Christian Democratic Union wants to raise from 10 to 15 years the maximum sentence for youth convicted of serious offenses. The CDU also wants to make it easier to deport foreign criminals, as most of the attackers presented in the media are either foreign nationals or at least have an immigrant component -- they are born in Germany as children of the so-called guest workers, immigrants who came to Germany in the 1960s and 1970s.
In an interview with German Bild am Sonntag weekly, Merkel proposed even more measures, including steps taken by authorities in America.
"I believe that a brief spell in custody and boot camps are a meaningful addition to our criminal justice system," Merkel said. "They can help young people change their way of thinking at an earlier stage so that they do not end up in prison."
The Social Democrats, the CDU's coalition partner, have accused the chancellor's party of populism and unnecessary security measures. The Social Democrats argue that the existing laws are sufficient; they simply have to be enforced better. That the brutal attacks fell into the campaigning of several closely fought state elections has not helped the discussion to remain sober and calm-headed.
In the state of Hesse, Prime Minister Roland Koch has said that "too many criminal foreigners" are living in Germany, proposing a six-point plan to be tougher on juvenile delinquents.
The SPD has accused Koch of playing the race card, and indeed, the discussion often highlights violent crimes by young immigrants, forgetting that many brutal crimes committed in Germany involve young right-wing extremists from the neo-Nazi scene attacking foreigners.
The German government is committed to fight juvenile delinquency no matter the background, said a government spokesman, and Merkel went to Koch's defense, saying that youth crime was a valid election issue because 43 percent of all violent crimes in Germany are committed by people under 21, almost half of whom have immigrant backgrounds. As most other European nations, Germany is struggling to integrate its immigrant community, especially as the cultural conflict between the West and the Muslim world takes on further heat.
Many of the immigrant kids grow up in patriarchal families and are socially disadvantaged and isolated in ghetto communities in the large German cities, Berlin, Munich, Hamburg and Frankfurt.
Walther Specht, a leading German educational science expert at the University of Tuebingen, argues tougher laws and boot camps won't help pull out the roots of the problem.
"If we speak to violent kids, they nearly all say that they want to stand out, be noticed, get respect -- in a negative way of course," he told German online daily Netzeitung in an interview. "If they create fear, then that's a positive ego-boost for them. We have to think about ways to satisfy their needs for recognition and respect in other ways, through cause-driven social work. The police can't do that."
But Alfred Kayser, a deputy police chief in the western German city of Offenbach, told German mass daily Bild the tale of a 17-year-old Afghan kid in his precinct, whose file includes 52 convictions, including robbery and assault. Since the kid is a minor, he can't be deported. In Kayser's opinion, the German youth laws are inadequate.
"A guy who sees the custodial judge in the morning may be free in the afternoon. That's very frustrating for us," he said. "It sends the wrong signals. We need quicker and harder penalties."
But what about prevention and social work, a measure favored by most experts?
"A guy with 52 convicted crimes on his back doesn't react to social work anymore," Kayser said.