Politicians trade insults over German school massacre

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The Independent Online

As a nation fell silent yesterday to remember the victims of the Erfurt school massacre, politicians accused each other of exploiting the tragedy.

Günther Beckstein, the shadow interior minister, said the government was guilty of "shameless indolence" over proposals to ban violent videos and computer games, cited as a possible factor in the killings.

In response, Otto Schily, the interior minister in the ruling coalition of Social Democrats (SPD) and Greens, said: "It is unacceptable that [Mr Beckstein] is trying to exploit this theme for election purposes ... he lacks the basic qualifications for the job."

Mr Schily said Edmund Stoiber, the head of the conservative Christian Social Union (CSU) and the main challenger for the Chancellor's job, should sack Mr Beckstein.

Violence-laden videos and computer games were discovered at the home of Robert Steinhäuser, the teenager who shot 16 staff and pupils. Legislation to ban such material is popular with the CSU, which claims proposals made in 2000 by the upper house of parliament went unheeded by the family affairs ministry.

Since the shooting, violence in the media has emerged as a key political theme alongside further tightening of gun laws, which has garnered support across the spectrum.

A consensus between political parties and police unions began to emerge yesterday for raising the minimum legal age for gun ownership from 18 to 21. Volker Beck, the Green Party's law and order spokesman, called on parliament to take on the gun lobby. He said it should crack down on the ownership of gas and starting pistols.

However, the Chancellor, Gerhard Schröder, who attended a memorial service at Erfurt Cathedral on Saturday evening, warned against rushing through legislation. He told a meeting of the SPD executive: "I am not going to take part in a premature debate. Now is the time for inner contemplation. Hectic proposals do not help."

Mr Stoiber and Angela Merkel, the party head, laid wreaths on the steps of the Gutenberg-Gymnasium school yesterday morning as hundreds of mourners gathered for a minute's silence. At 11.05am, the time the attack was reported, staff and pupils stood in driving rain with their heads bowed in remembrance of the gunman's victims – a secretary, two pupils and 13 teachers.

Glancing upwards, one pupil said: "Even the sky is crying this morning." The emotional intensity reduced many pupils to tears and the live broadcast was momentarily interrupted as the presenter, surrounded by schoolchildren, broke down.

The silence was observed in factories and offices across the country and lessons were interrupted in thousands of schools. At the recommendation of the education ministry, more than 1,000 schools in the state of Thuringia scrapped lessons to allow teachers and psychologists to talk to children about violence in society.

"Tomorrow we will try to resume normal lessons but if the children need to talk, we will always interrupt to let them speak," said Rowitha Tichatschke, a German and English teacher from a secondary school in Erfurt.

The principal of Gutenberg-Gymnasium, Christine Alt, said the school, where students where in the midst of university entrance exams, would re-open in the autumn.

Pupils are being counselled in impromptu classrooms in the town hall. But yesterday, as the city struggled to return to normality, most pupils opted to return home early after the minute's silence. A hand-written sign taped to a pillar outside city hall summed up the mood: "Monday can't be a normal school day."