NY Conversation August 2012

2012 has been a strange year for a lot of people, and for NY Conversation, it’s ended up as a weird inebriated Forrest Gump stagger through a bunch of international “situations”: a riot in Athens, a full-scale revolution in Egypt… Nothing, though, has been quite as strange as the frankly crazy shit that went down when your correspondent was in Berlin earlier this month.

Here’s the scene: NY Conversation and Mrs NY Conversation have just sat down at a table outside a modest Italian restaurant in Neukölln. As we’re debating the merits of the pizza versus the pasta, we notice that a crowd is starting to gather on the corner where the main street we’re on intersects a smaller, residential street, perhaps ten metres or so from us. A crowd draws a crowd, so we get up and take a few steps down the street to check what’s going on. At first we just see three cars stopped in a row at a green light, which seems strange.

And then we catch sight of the two heavy-set black-clad dudes with balaclavas. They’re standing in the middle of the small street round the corner from us, and both of them are wielding very real-looking pistols. They’re pointing said pistols at a handcuffed guy in a business suit, who appears to be wearing an eye mask. Another balaclava-wearing gentleman is standing on the corner with one of those hand-held stop-go lights, with which he’s making it clear that no traffic is going to be turning right off our street any time soon.

I’ve never really seen a gun being wielded with serious intent before — the closest I’ve come before is when a couple of jacked-up kiddies pulled guns on the A Train in New York last year, as also related in this apparently ever-more dramatic column, and even then I heard the gunshots rather than actually seeing the weapon. So the natural instinct is to get the fuck out of harm’s way in case bullets start flying. We hit the ground and wait for something to happen. Nothing happens.

After perhaps a minute, I peek out from through the branches of the comically large potplant behind which I’ve taken shelter. The handcuffed guy is gone. The stop-go guy has climbed into the first car, and the pistol wielders are backing their way to the middle car, tracking their guns left and right as they climb into it. They slam the door, and the first car drives off. With a final glare at the bystanders, the pistol guys follow in their car, and the third takes off after it, driven by someone who I don’t get any sort of a look at. And they’re gone. The whole thing has taken perhaps two minutes, max.

What… the… fuck?

The crowd seems as bewildered by the whole thing as we are — everyone just kinda mills around, unsure of what to do. There’s much discussion in German, and eventually we hear a couple of American backpackers speaking English. “They put the guy in the trunk of the car,” one tells me. “They just shoved him in there and drove off.”

No-one seems to have thought of calling the police. The natural inclination, perhaps, is to want to believe that there must be some official explanation for what’s apparently a broad daylight abduction. But either way, a van full of cops pulls up about ten minutes later. They get out, wander round for a minute or so, get back in their car and leave. If they were supposed to be involved in whatever sort of operation just went down, they’re way too late.

For want of any better ideas, we resume our seats outside the restaurant. The waiter comes by a minute or so later, and speaks enough English for us to ask him what on earth that was all about. He seems delighted by the whole thing.

“Special forces,” he says proudly.

Special forces?

“Yes. They’re good, yes?”

Good? Well, I’m not sure. I have no way of knowing what we saw. I’m not entirely sure that I want to know. Maybe it was the police, although I’m not entirely sure they wear balaclavas as a matter of course. Maybe we saw a mafia kidnapping. Maybe it was just some bored businessman’s weird fantasy being played out.

But one thing’s clear: if it was special forces of some description, it also means that pretty much anyone in Berlin could put on a balaclava and abduct someone off the street and no-one’d bat an eyelid. And I wonder in this era of national security and extraordinary rendition and etc, just how different it’d be in any other free Western country. If you don’t hear from me for a while, ask around, eh?

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