On Friday 7 April, a man stole a truck in central Stockholm and drove it into a crowd on Drottninggatan, a pedestrianised street and major shopping area. He killed four people. A suspect has been arrested. Meanwhile the life of Stockholm continues. Here I offer a few personal reflections.
The title of this blog post is a Stockholm title. City of my dreams and City in the world are the first and fifth novels in the ‘City Series’ by Per Anders Fogelström. Through the lives of an ordinary working family, through pain and deprivation, through opportunity and the hope of progress, the novels trace Stockholm’s growth and change from 1860 until the 1960s as it became a modern, world city.
The attack happened at eight minutes before three in the afternoon. The city centre was quickly locked down. Public transport in the centre came to a standstill. The train service in and out of Stockholm was suspended as was the T-bana (metro). Initial police advice was for everyone to stay put. After a couple of hours people started to walk home. I work well to the north of the city and life south of the centre. A colleague, her friend, her friend’s dog and I set off some time after six. About seven thirty we happened upon a T-bana stop. It was functioning again, four and half hour after the attack, maybe sooner. The advice from the police was no longer about staying put; instead it had become encouragement to live normally.
Next morning BBC Radio 4 Today programme wanted an interview. With inevitable irony, when I pitched up at the Swedish Radio building to discuss security in Stockholm, the security had been tightened and it was quite some time before I could persuade them to check with whomever and let me in. The Today questions were also inevitable. They wanted to know how the attack will exacerbate already tense arguments about immigration and refugees and don’t the Swedish security service need more powers?
It seems to be a knee-jerk reaction for contemporary journalism to respond to bad news by focusing on what the next bad news will be. Fortunately, the world doesn’t always justify that cynicism.
So far as I can see – and perhaps the perspective is a bit distorted by the week after the attack being the Easter holiday week in Sweden – the response in Stockholm has not been intensified debate about immigration and policing powers; it has actually been to get on with living normally.
Balancing freedom and security
There is, nonetheless, a legitimate debate to have about the balance between living normally and being secure. Colleagues at SIPRI gave me an even better chance to discuss it with the first in a series of very short films we’ll be doing from now – Peace Points:
Maybe we do need and can have at not too much cost some enhanced degree of security for mass public events, including everyday events like the rush hour. But the best response, as the Swedish authorities seem to have recognised, is to live normally.
That was also the message of a big gathering two days after the attack, just round the corner from where it happened. It was a festival of grieving and solidarity. I found it impossible to tell how many were there but this YouTube clip gives a sense of the occasion:
City of our dreams
This was the first terror attack in Stockholm since 2010 when only the would-be killer died. People in Swedish political and policy circles with whom I have discussed terrorism generally acknowledged long before the attack that sooner or later there would be another one. In that sense, for people who think about these issues, the event on 7 April was a shock but not a surprise.
There could be shock of a different kind at some of the reactions. On the very day of the attack I came across a commentary online in which a voice mockingly remarks that Sweden’s “multi-cultural paradise has today been enriched” by the Drottninggatan attack. I won’t include the link for it. There were many other far less offensive online comments that tried to use the attack to show that, after all, not all is well in Sweden and, thus, President Trump was right in February when he referred to the country’s problems with immigration.
That reaction from political conservatives is the other side of the coin of the long distance love affair many people in many countries have with Sweden, as a peaceful, prosperous, still relatively equal and free society that contributes to peace, development and freedoms worldwide. It is the country of progressive dreams. And as is the way with capital cities, Stockholm seems to epitomise it.
City in the world
Yes, there is much that is special, even wonderful about Stockholm and Sweden. But of course, it is not perfect. It is human and flawed and the pain that is inscribed in its development is brilliantly depicted by Fogelström’s novels. It is part of a flawed and sometimes frightening world – a good part of the world, true, but not paradise, nor perpetual quarantine to keep it safe from the problems and insecurity of the day.
It is not always easy for this formerly homogenous society to integrate diversity. The health services are generally regarded as being less effective then 20-30 years ago. There has been a series of changes and changes back in education. Socio-economic inequalities are increasing. And the first people who will tell you not all is well are Swedes. For whatever is wrong with Sweden, it is not a country of complacency. As well as values of solidarity and fairness, Sweden has a considerable capacity for self-reflection about its problems so it can do better.
And that, of course, is part of what will see Sweden through.