Published daily by the Lowy Institute

Sweden unites in wake of terror attack

Perhaps most telling - and for Swedes, the most heartening - response is the attitude displayed toward police in the wake of the attack.

In the days after the attack Swedes have given flowers to police (Photo: Michael Campanella/Getty Images)
In the days after the attack Swedes have given flowers to police (Photo: Michael Campanella/Getty Images)
Published 10 Apr 2017 

Nice, Berlin, London and then Stockholm. The wave of Islamic-inspired, lone-wolf terror attacks sweeping through Europe reached the heart of Scandinavia on Friday, targeting Sweden, the country famously cited by Bin Laden as a symbol of freedom. Now 7/4 will be remembered by Swedes as the day when four people (one Briton, one Belgian and two Swedes) died and more than 15 were severely injured after a 39-year-old Uzbekistan-born man drove a hijacked lorry through one of Stockholm’s busiest shopping strips before crashing into a major department store. The revelation that the perpetrator is a rejected asylum seeker initially inspired fears the attack would prompt Sweden, the European country that has welcomed the most refugees on per capita basis, to alter its long-held attitude of openness and solidarity. So far though, the response to the attack suggests otherwise.   

Noteworthy features of the response include its speed and effectiveness, strangers uniting across Stockholm and the country in the face of terror, and the actions of, and response to, Sweden's police force.

Stockholm was swiftly shutdown in the immediate aftermath of the attack. Public and private transport were suspended, and the public encouraged to stay at home behind locked doors. This didn't prevent people from both helping out stranded strangers. Various members of the public  also helped police track down the alleged perpetrator, who had escaped from the scene of the attack. Six hours later he was in custody.

In subsequent hours, the initial shock and fear began to be tempered by stories of heroism - the father who put himself in the harms's way while saving his child - and intervention, such as that by a driver who blasted his horn and thinned the crowd before the lorry struck, and the swift and effective action of medical and emergency teams, some of whom were summoned, some of whom happened to be nearby. And there are stories of more random acts of kindness, such as the author who offered on Instagram to buy parents books to divert the attention of children.

However perhaps most telling - and for Swedes, the most heartening - response is the attitude displayed toward police. Swedish news and social media have been inundated with images of policemen and police cars with flowers, gifts from a public grateful for police efforts in the aftermath of the attack. These scenes are a particularly poignant act of solidarity, not just because they reflect the values of a Swedish society based on trust, but also because in recent years a major reform, that replaced 21 county police authorities with one national force, had caused major controversy both within and outside of the police.

In contrast, in the days since the attack, public authorities and citizens have united. This solidarity was also evident in ceremonies held on Sunday to honour of the victims, in which thousands of people participated as Stockholmers took back to the streets but were told to ‘leave politics at home’.

There is no doubt this act of terrorism will prompt debate on how to handle rejected refugees, much like in the recent German case. However, one does not have to look hard for counter-narratives and local resilience when the lasting symbolic image for the tragedy is likely to become police cars covered with flowers. Presumably this is the exact opposite of what the terrorist wanted to achieve.

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