Last night, I walked past the main synagogue in Copenhagen with a friend. We’d just had an evening of catching up, having dinner and enjoying a beer in a favourite local bar of mine.
At the synagogue’s gate, a burly man eyed us intently, darkly even, as we sauntered past. I remember making a passing comment about it to my friend who speculated that it was the temple’s security guard. We both agreed that it was very ‘un-Copenhagen’ – a city characterised by its easy informality – and then the conversation turned to other things.
Half an hour later, back at my hotel room, I start to receive messages from friends and family – are you okay? We’ve seen the news? Are you safe?
In truth, I had no idea what was going on, although the word ‘Copenhagen’ spoken by a CNN newsreader as I passed through the hotel’s lounge now seemed more significant than it had a moment earlier.
The news, of course, is reported exhaustively elsewhere – shootings at a free speech event, followed by a shoot-out at the synagogue later on – but the consequence of those events, on Saturday night of Valentine’s weekend, during the winter school holidays, in the midst of one of Copenhagen’s big ‘discount dining out’ weeks feel surreal to this former local.
The wail of police sirens filled the night air until at least 6am on Sunday morning. Those still on the streets but unaware of events were told to stay indoors or go home. The city’s busiest station was closed to passengers, and a visibly shocked prime minister took to the airwaves to issue a message of defiance and reassurance.
But the underlying commentary on the night’s events really boiled down to this: “This sort of thing doesn’t happen here.”
When I lived here, the low crime rate in Denmark was always the source of some puzzlement to me until I realised that Denmark is essentially a society that is built on mutual trust. If that breaks down, there are hardly any CCTV cameras to capture the evidence, and you could be forgiven for wondering whether Denmark has a police force at all given its near zero-visibility in the daily lives of most Danes. And yet society functions here. But start to pick at that fabric; start to show how easy it would be to flout that atmosphere of mutual trust, and you back Danes into a corner – what then? Should they become a society that isn’t the one they want, or accept that this kind of thing will happen in a place as open and accessible as this country has become.
When I was a kid growing up in London, I remember being aware of various IRA bombing campaigns in the UK – parcel bombs, attacks on shopping centres, pub bombings. I was still young, but I don’t remember it having a material effect on our family life – we still went to a Christmas pantomime in London; still went Christmas shopping to Oxford Street
The feeling here in Copenhagen today seems very similar to the feeling in Sydney after the cafe siege (I was there that day too, from which you may conclude that I am somewhat jinxed in these matters) – quiet shock among real people, wall-to-wall media coverage, and a slow, reluctant, but nevertheless unchanged start to a new day.
These events are bruises to the city’s surface, but not fatal blows. Danish-ness, as with Aussie-ness, is too deeply defined for that. This subdued restart to normal life is exactly what is needed.
God bedring København, which loosely translates as ‘wishing you a good recovery Copenhagen’. As someone that you took in and showed the benefits of Danish life to, I hope this doesn’t change you one little bit.