Reactions in Germany to the killing of a German exchange student in the U.S.

Diren Dede, 17, an exchange student from Germany, was shot to death in Montana by a man who mistakenly took him for a burglar.

OK, well, I’m not sure if you’ve heard, but another person has died tragically in the U.S. due to guns.

This time the victim was a German exchange student, a 17-year-old named Diren Dede. Coincidentally, Diren, who was doing an exchange year in Missoula, Montana, was from a district in Hamburg called Altona, which is where I live. His family actually lives in an apartment building a short distance from mine.

In any event, before I launch into what the German reaction to this young man’s death has been and what that reaction illustrates about the way many Germans perceive violence and gun culture in the United States, here’s what was said to have occurred:

Just after midnight on Sunday April 27, Diren was trespassing for some reason in the garage of one of his neighbors, a man named Markus Kaarma. Kaarma’s garage had been burglarized several times in early April and he said that he was not satisfied with the help police were offering. So he and his girlfriend, with whom he lives, decided they were going to try and catch the perp themselves. On Saturday night, they placed a motion-detecting baby monitor and video camera in the garage, left the garage door half open, and waited.

It isn’t exactly known why Diren chose to enter the garage. Some news agencies have said that he and a friend were “garage hopping,” or going into neighbors’ garages as a prank in search of small trinkets or to grab a can of beer or some soda from a spare refrigerator. In any event, seconds after Diren entered the garage, Kaarma exited the front door of his home with a shotgun, went to the front of the garage and called “hey” into it. Diren said “hey” or “wait” back, it isn’t quite clear. But Kaarma, unable to see into the garage — he said he was blinded by the external garage lights — and spooked by what he thought was the sound of “metal on metal,” opened fire.

The bullets hit Diren in the head and arm and he died a short while after at the hospital.

Though Kaarma said he believed that he was about to be in life-threatening danger and his lawyer invoked the “castle doctrine” law, which is more or less Montana’s version of the “stand your ground” law, police still charged him with homicide. An investigating officer, in his decision to file charges, cited ballistics tests and testimony from a haircutter who said that Kaarma had told her a few days before the incident that his house had been burglarized and he was just waiting to “shoot some kid.”

In reaction to the shooting, the German consulate in San Francisco said that it finds it reprehensible that one of its citizens, or anyone for that matter, could be killed for simply trespassing in a garage and has demanded a comprehensive investigation.

But even though the consulate struck a note of outrage in its reaction to the shooting, I’ve come to the conclusion, due to the articles I’ve been reading in German newspapers and the conversations I’ve been having, that this incident has generated more perplexity and disillusionment than anything else.

On the day after Diren was killed, almost all the newspapers in Hamburg ran an article about the incident. But one article that really stood out and helped me get an idea of how Germans were processing and responding to the news was an article in a midsize daily called the Hamburger Morgenpost. The headline was “Why did Diren have to die?” and the article was in Q+A  format — a format that was chosen, I think, to quickly answer the most pressing questions that Germans, being Germans, were bound to have. The first question in the article that caught my eye and seemed to offer insight into the larger German reaction to and understanding for the events was this one:

“Is it possible that the perpetrator might be acquitted?”

Germans, at least I think, just can’t seem to grasp that a person could go unpunished after shooting someone to death. Though Germans have much less strict punitive penalties — there is no death penalty in Germany and the longest prison sentences are usually around 15 years — they still can’t understand that if you kill someone the way Diren was killed, in a modern society like the U.S., you can sometimes escape punishment entirely.

Another question from the article that I found interesting and telling: “Why would people in the U.S. want laws that protect people who kill other people?”

To answer this question the authors of the article worked hard to explain that there is overwhelming support in certain U.S. states for both guns and the right to own them, which has resulted in some states’ having laws that grant gun owners more rights and more latitude.

So there you have it: The Morgenpost article and many of the questions in it, I think,  really speak for the  feeling of perplexity that this incident has generated in Germany. But I had said that the killing provoked much disillusionment, too.

Many people I’ve spoken to here about the matter have repeated the sentiment that they simply can’t believe that so many people die so violently in a country like the U.S. This feeling of disillusionment, I think, may have actually been best captured in comments that were made by Diren’s father himself.

Diren was of Turkish decent and his father, Celal Dede, is a taxi driver who has been doing the job for almost two decades. Dede said that Diren was inspired by the family story – that is, a family moves to Germany from Turkey in hopes of a more prosperous life, and achieves this goal. Dede, in fact, said one of the reasons Diren wanted to go to America was because America is said to be the land of dreams and possibility.

But after traveling to the U.S. in the beginning of May to claim his son’s body, this is what Dede said when he was asked how he now viewed America:

“There in the U.S. everything looks very charming and very friendly. It doesn’t appear that murderers can reside there. But America remains dangerous because anyone can go out and buy a gun. I’ve been a taxi driver for 20 years in Saint Pauli [a district in Hamburg that some consider dodgy] and I have worked many times at night; I have even had my house broken into. But I have never thought to run out and buy a weapon! Everything in the U.S. looks so idyllic, but something else, something dark, lurks behind it. And America says that it wants to bring justice to the world. But this is not justice.”

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