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What It Was Like to be in Munich During the Panic of Friday's Attack

First, there was the breaking news push notification, then the tweets. But a WhatsApp message from a friend who said he was trapped in a shop changed everything.

by Laura Meschede
23 July 2016, 2:49pm

This article originally appeared on VICE Germany

First there's the breaking news report. I'm still totally calm at this point. Shots fired at Olympia mall in Munich. 'Oh,' I think and send the info to one of my WhatsApp groups. In case someone missed it. What's Twitter saying? Shots at the OEZ mall; I already know that. And apparently taxi drivers are supposed to avoid Stachus, a large central square. Wait a minute – why there? That's miles away from the mall.

I write: "Shooter apparently still on the loose. Officials say avoid Stachus. What the fuck?" My friend Mari replies: "I heard there was something at Odeonsplatz too." "Subways shut down," writes Andrea. Twitter says: shots fired at Tollwood festival.

By now I'm getting reports on three different channels: WhatsApp, Telegram and Facebook. I'm in five Telegram groups and four WhatsApp groups; five of these nine groups are discussing the news.

Then suddenly, a message says: "He's here. Help. Omg." It's from my friend Max, in my largest WhatsApp group; 35 people read him. Panicked message upon message within seconds. Max? MAX?? Silence. Then a voice message. We hear wheezing. Max says, "We're at Rewe [supermarket]. On Tal. He's in here." Tal is a shopping street in Munich's city centre. Max is sobbing rather than talking. His voice somersaults as he keeps repeating, "Oh my god." End of voice message.

That's the moment when I start to panic.

Just days ago, a study was published saying that 73 percent of Germans are afraid of terrorism. That's 21 percent up from last year – and perhaps a few percent less than now. According to the study, terrorism was Germans' greatest fear even prior to the events in Munich, coming in ahead of other fears such as "severe illness" or "wars with German participation."

Terrorism has been happening in people's minds for years now. The scene has been set by thousands of media reports, and right-wing agitation, and debates about right-wing agitation. The image of the crazed Islamist firing into a crowd at random has seared itself into our minds. On the 24th of June, the German government passed a new anti-terror law. Anonymous prepaid SIM cards are prohibited, the German security agency BfV can acquire data more easily, the use of covert operations is subject to fewer restrictions. On the 20th of July, a new Russian anti-terror law came into force and France extended its state of emergency for another six months. Do these measures prevent attacks? It hardly matters. You can't really argue with fear. I wonder if terrorism has now come to Munich as well.

Public transportation has shut down. The police advise people to avoid public places. Articles detailing what is and isn't known dominate German online media. What we know: absolutely nothing. But on Twitter, people do seem to know things: Apparently Islam itself did it, and most likely the perpetrator only just fled from Syria. What exactly did he do? Where are shots being fired? Who cares. The phone network is at breaking point. I'm notified of missed call after missed call, coming in with massive delay.

Articles detailing what is and isn't known dominate German online media. What we know: absolutely nothing

"Go home," I message all my friends. I've advocated against fear of terrorism for months now, cited statistics about the likelihood of being hit by falling branches versus facing the gun of a terrorist. But ever since I heard the voice message, I'm scared. What if my friends are among the victims? Terror is right here with us now, I feel it. People in the street outside my door are all staring at their phones. The Olympia mall is half an hour from here, and so is Stachus, but via Twitter and WhatsApp I'm basically around the corner. It feels like it, anyway.

Later that evening most of the photos and videos will be revealed as fakes. Just like most of the alleged crime scenes. The information on social media hasn't informed us at all – it has simply filled us with panic.

In the pedestrian shopping street between Marienplatz and Stachus squares, all the shops are closed and full of people. Right outside are cops with assault rifles. It's 9.30PM. Still no all-clear from the police. "Nobody dares to go outside," says a toy store employee. "And where would they even go? There's no transport." Closing time was an hour ago, but now he's handing out free drinks to the people who've sought refuge with him. "I saw the fear in their faces; it was just like in a movie," he says. He sounds tired, the words coming out slowly. Do I want to come in? No? "Okay, but then you should stick close to walls, to monitor your surroundings. And don't move in groups", he says. "I got that advice from the police."

The police can't really tell us much more than that. At Marienplatz, an officer guards a big police cordon, barring the way to Stachus. I ask him why. "Well, isn't Stachus closed?", he asks back. "No," I say, "that's where I just came from." "Oh," says the cop. But he keeps on guarding, now with doubt in his eyes.

Later that evening most of the photos and videos will be revealed as fakes. The information on social media hasn't informed us at all – it has simply filled us with panic

I get a phone call from Max, who has found out that the Stachus attacker wasn't at the supermarket with him. That he didn't, in fact, exist. "We'd just been told on Twitter that shots had been fired at Stachus," he says. "I'm at the checkout five minutes from there when someone storms in yelling, 'He's coming!'"

So Max drops everything and runs, along with all the other customers. Shelves topple, people shove, kids scream. He hides in the cold storage room, squeezing inside the cabinet under a sink with a friend. Just across from them, a man is calling his mother to say farewell. Everyone's sure: we're about to die. Between frozen ribs and pork chops.

A photo Max took at the supermarket: "Everyone's sure: we're about to die."

Max sends the voice message to the WhatsApp group. Outside some guy is yelling something in Arabic. Max is an anti-fascist and considers himself to be unprejudiced. He says, "I was sure that had to be the shooter." He pauses for a second. "That's just unbelievable," he then adds. "I'm against prejudice like that, and I still had those thoughts. We all thought it. Because 9/11 had such an impact on all of us. I'm no exception."

"I've read so much about it since 9/11. These images were everywhere, and suddenly it seemed to be happening," he says. "It's crazy how the human mind works."

The attacker at the Olympia mall was an 18-year-old lone shooter, the police tell us at the press conference at 2AM on Saturday. The other attackers apparently never existed. "To us they were very real," says Max. 2,300 police officers were deployed. Countless emergency calls and reports of shootings in other places reached the police on Friday night. None of them held water. Mass panic didn't just occur at the supermarket, but dozens of other places such as the central train station, Stachus and the famous beer hall Hofbräuhaus.

Were the events in Munich terrorism? It hardly matters. In the minds of Munich's inhabitants, it was. And you can't really argue with fear.

What we are left with is grief for the dead. A special meeting of the security council. Perhaps a new anti-terror law, sooner or later. The machine of fear and hate rumbles on, across social media, in the newspapers, on the talk shows. Last night I felt how deeply we are part of it. That's what I'm left with.