Sweden: a hostage to paranoia
The panic over an allegedly racist gunman in Malmö reveals a great deal about modern-day Sweden.
A racist killer is on the rampage in southern Sweden.
At least, that’s the conclusion that has been drawn by the Swedish commentariat over the past week, following a police announcement that over the past year 15 out of 50 reported shootings in Malmö, Sweden’s third largest city, remain unresolved but have one common denominator: all the victims had foreign backgrounds.
After calling for the assistance of the National Murder Commission and receiving hundreds of tips from the public, the police in Malmö have drawn some tenuous links between the shootings. Yet although the police have offered little more than speculation so far, commentators have spun wild theories about the racist motivations of the gunman and the insidious influence of the Sweden Democrats, the right-wing party which gained 20 parliamentary seats in September’s general elections.
While there are still almost no clues about the man, woman or persons behind the abhorrent shootings, the reaction to the violent acts is very revealing. It exposes an increasingly insecure society, ready to make itself a hostage to an undefined threat. And it reveals a political class that would sooner hold up the relatively marginal and shrill Sweden Democrats as the root of all society’s woes than tackle questions about immigration and integration or confront its own crisis of confidence and dearth of support.
One popular theory in the media is that the Malmö incidents are copycat shootings by a lone racist inspired by the so-called Laser Man, a psychopathic killer who between August 1991 and January 1992 shot 11 people, most of them immigrants, in my hometown of Stockholm.
‘Has Sweden got a new Laser Man?’ asked a TV report. A columnist for the tabloid Expressen said the Malmö shootings are ‘an unpleasant mirror image of 1991’ with ‘a new Laser Man using Malmö as his private shooting range’. Another tabloid declared that the police are searching for ‘a new Laser Man’. In an interview for the daily Dagens Nyheter, the author of a biography of the notorious 1991 killer asserted that ‘today’s society resembles that of the Laser Man’s’.
The Laser Man, whose real name is John Ausonius and who was sentenced to life imprisonment in 1994, got his nickname because he used a rifle equipped with a laser sight. I was in my early teens at the time of his rampage, and can clearly remember the sense of terror and paranoia that spread across Stockholm. The one victim who died as a result of being shot by the Laser Man was shot outside the home of some Turkish friends of my family.
At the time, Sweden was experiencing an economic downturn and the anti-immigrant New Democracy party had just managed to get into parliament. One party representative infamously said in a TV interview that things were better in the past when most African children used to get eaten by lions, and now that Swedish aid money was helping them survive, population growth was having catastrophic consequences. There were also a series of neo-Nazi demonstrations on the streets of Stockholm back then, with skinheads shouting ‘Sieg Heil’ and burning crosses, Ku Klux Klan-style.
Now, the media narrative goes, 20 years on, another right-wing, anti-immigrant party has entered parliament, there is a recession, and foreigners are being shot on the streets of Sweden. The shootings are being portrayed almost as a logical consequence of the Sweden Democrats’ electoral successes and of a supposed widespread acceptance of racism.
This is a myth that has survived since the 1990s: that Sweden is in the grip of a sinister racism that is leading some people to view foreigners as open targets. Yes, Ausonius has admitted in interviews to being inspired by New Democracy and the debate about immigration in the early 1990s. But it’s worth remembering this was a man who had been in and out of prisons and mental asylums and who had a history of violence and bank robberies – and he was himself the child of immigrants from Germany and Switzerland. His shooting spree was not a violent manifestation of a mainstream acceptance of racism in Sweden; it was the act of a deranged man with severe complexes.
Nor did the skinheads parading in Stockholm, or the New Democracy politicians singing the Lion King theme song at party meetings, gain much sympathy in the 1990s. In fact, anti-racist solidarity marches were organised, the press dubbed foreigners ‘the new Swedes’, and immigrants were lauded when they organised a one-hour national strike to show that ‘without us, Sweden would stand still’.
Today, the Sweden Democrats leader, Jimmie Åkesson, has apparently been given advice by one of the leaders of the now-disbanded New Democracy party. Yet although there is no question that the Sweden Democrats are obsessed with the ‘Islamification’ of Sweden, and blame immigrants for most of society’s woes, they are a lot more PR-conscious than the New Democracy clowns ever were. For instance, when, in the run-up to this year’s elections, a Sweden Democrats representative posted a video on her Facebook wall and wrote that the immigrants in it should be shot between the eyes, put in a plastic bag and be ‘sent back to where they belong’, she was duly sacked. And now the Sweden Democrats have promised a reward of 25,000 Swedish Kronor (around £2,400) to anyone who helps the police find the shooter in Malmö.
In the run-up to the election in September, all mainstream party leaders promised they would not touch the Sweden Democrats with a barge poll. The party’s election campaign film was censored and their supporters were generally silenced rather than allowed to air their views and to have them contested in open debate.
Now, Swedish politicians and commentators who tried to ‘no-platform’ the Sweden Democrats feel vindicated. They are pointing to the shootings in Malmö and saying: ‘This is what happens when right-wingers get to air their dirty views.’
But let’s remember that all we know so far is that while 35 out of 50 investigated shootings in Malmö since October 2009 have been resolved (and have all been linked to organised crime), 15 of them have not been accounted for. They are seemingly random night-time shootings with no discernible motivation, but all targeting people of foreign backgrounds. Creating any narrative beyond that is simply wild speculation. And it is actually helping to create a sense of fear, paranoia and divisiveness in Sweden.
The police have been inundated with ‘tips’ from the public, including one sighting of a young woman with a gun holster. Police pounced on her, but it turned out she was going to a fancy dress party. Malmö police have criticised a fake chain text message signed ‘the police’, which warns young people not to go out at night. Yet the police themselves have warned immigrants to be ‘vigilant’. No wonder some dark-haired Swedes are buying blonde wigs in an attempt to fool the so-called racist gunman.
It is understandable that people are nervous, but the hysteria is actually helping to justify heavier policing of foreigners. For instance, the leader of a youth association in the Malmö suburb of Rosengård, which has 22,000 residents from 111 countries, demanded that more surveillance cameras be installed in the area.
Whether or not the shootings turn out to be the work of a lunatic racist, one thing is clear: all this fearmongering is helping to stir up tensions in Sweden, drawing division lines between ‘immigrants’ and ‘Swedes’. It is helping to restrict ethnic minorities’ freedoms and to make them feel insecure in what is really a very safe country.
The impact crimes have on a country are determined not only by the seriousness of the crimes but also by the state of mind and political coherence of the country itself. And the widespread impact of the speculation about the Malmö shootings – on debate, politics and people’s feeling of safety – reveals a country ill-at-ease, insecure and more given to fearmongering than level-headed debate
Nathalie Rothschild is commissioning editor of spiked.
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