Reflections on the Copenhagen Shootings

Published On March 4, 2015 | Blogs

Tine By: Tine Nansen Paulsen



There is something utterly strange about being abroad when catastrophe strikes in your home country. You feel both the distance and the connection more intensely. I have no Earth-shattering new perspective on what happened in Copenhagen on 14 February. But I can give you reflections from a Dane outside the country who has been recently reminded that she is just that: Danish, and outside.

Denmark is a small country. Most commercial, political, and cultural activities are centered around the capital, Copenhagen. About a third of the population lives either in Copenhagen or in close proximity to it. For high school students in small, provincial towns, the dream is always to go live in Copenhagen, and, unsurprisingly, most of my Danish friends have ended up doing exactly that. Denmark is small enough for most of us to have direct connections to the capital. We either live there or have a close friend or family member who does. And so most of us have our own Copenhagen.

Copenhagen is tipsy teenagers hanging out in parks. It is well-dressed, blond mothers sharing cappuccinos while admiring their children. It is running into a childhood friend on a small side street on a sunny Saturday morning because it is just that tiny. Copenhagen is small, safe, and easy to like. Or at least it used to be until that Saturday in February, when, suddenly, it was the complete opposite.

A good American friend asked me why I thought there had been such weak media coverage of the shootings, especially as the Charlie Hebdo attacks had gathered such widespread attention. At the time I had no good answer. I was still reeling from the shock of it all and needed desperately to share the sense of “everything has gone wrong” with somebody who understood how Copenhagen is supposed to be. I was not ready to engage in any intellectual dissection of the events.

But a few weeks have gone by, and I am ready now. I think part of the answer lies, in fact, in the intense coverage of the Charlie Hebdo attacks. Most people had already said what they wanted to in the days following the violence in France: How freedom of speech should go before everything else; how freedom of speech should only be used to attack those in power; how Europe is failing to deal with its immigrant population; how Europe is failing to deal with its racist population. The back and forth had been going on for so long without any outside encouragement that further fuel to the debate went unnoticed. The Copenhagen shootings were just another event in a dreadful month.

The coverage inside Denmark has, of course, been intense. Everybody agreed that the anger and violence were abominable; that free speech is sacred; and that nobody should feel threatened to keep silent. The left-wing media focused its attention on why someone would feel disenfranchised enough to commit such crimes, whereas the right-wing media framed the attacks as the opportunity for soft liberals to finally come to their senses. 

The Cartoon Crisis that happened 10 years ago is still the center of much Danish debate on free speech. While most of the world seems to have forgotten how Denmark was the target of Muslim condemnation of a Danish newspaper’s depiction of the Prophet Mohammed, Danes certainly have not. Back then, most left-wing media agreed that Jyllandsposten, the newspaper in question, was certainly allowed to post drawings of Mohammed. However, left-wing media also found it deeply problematic that Jyllandsposten had chosen to do so because it was targeting a marginalized group. Right-wing media, on the other hand, was mostly preoccupied with what they saw as the attack on a fundamental value of democratic society, the freedom of speech. As the crisis unfurled and became bigger than any Danish media expert could have imagined, the responses changed tone. As Danish embassies were attacked and Danish flags burned, the debate lost nuance. Suddenly, freedom of speech was seen as not only a fundamental democratic value, but also as a particularly Danish one. To question the centrality of freedom of speech would be to question Danish-ness.

That the events of 14 February have turned into a rally around freedom of speech is, therefore, not surprising. However, I was missing the debate that could be sparked from the other half of the shootings: the ones that could be awakened by the violence at the synagogue in Krystalgade. Danish society is still proud of the sense of community and inclusivity that helped to save the Danish Jews from Holocaust in 1943. While the gunman in Copenhagen probably saw his attacks on the synagogue as an attack on Israel, I saw the violence as an attack on the inclusive nature of Danish society. Ironically, an inclusiveness that extends not only to Jews, but to other faiths and ethnicities as well. The failure of any major media to frame the debate in this way shows, to me at least, that inclusiveness is no longer seen as the fundamental Danish value: Freedom of speech for all in Danish society has triumphed over acceptance of everyone in that society as the defining Danish trait.

The Copenhagen shootings showed me how connected I still feel to my home country. But they also showed me that I am outside the national discourse in a way that makes me feel utterly foreign when speaking to other Danes. I can share the emotional responses, but I am unable to take part in the collective intellectual processing of them.



Photo credit: Peter Kirkeskov Rasmussen (Creative Commons).