How close-knit Denmark is responding to the Copenhagen shootings

An American student is struck by the lack of fear she finds in the capital

The buzz of extra foot traffic on Krystalgade barely interrupted Lior Foighel as he toasted rye bread and readied lox for a traditional Danish sandwich.

Outside the cafe, it looked like any other day in Copenhagen: grey.  Usually, colourful rows of houses stand out against the gloomy skies.

This week, it’s flowers. And the lack of fear.

Despite last weekend’s terrorist attack that rattled Denmark and the rest of the world, hysteria is noticeably absent on the streets of the Danish capital.

Children dressed up for Fastelavn, the Carnival celebration, frolicked in the streets of Nørrebro.  Right around the corner, Omar el-Hussein, identified as the gunman responsible for killing two and wounding five at an Østerbro theatre and then a synagogue in central Copenhagen, was killed by police early on Sunday morning.

“I’m not afraid at all,” said Foighel.

Most Danes are just like Foighel.  They are not afraid. 

READ MORE: 30,000 take part in Copenhagen memorial service

Fundamentals of Danish society help mitigate angst
Denmark’s societal norm of trust, both in others and the government, as well as a cohesive national identity, are helping many get through this difficult time as calmly as possible. As an outsider, I’m impressed. How does this all work?  

“Social trust” is measured by several organisations, one of which is the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).  In 2008, 88.8 percent of Danes responded that they had a high level of trust in others. In the United States, only 48.7 percent felt the same.

“You trust your neighbour to pay the same taxes as yourself.  You would never pay your taxes if you didn’t trust your neighbours to pay theirs,” Mette Jungersen, an instructor of Danish language and culture at the Danish Institute for Study Abroad, said.

“You can’t rock the boat by one attack in this context,” she added. “Trust is the glue that ties us all together.”  

Official discourse surrounding the tragedy reinforces the ideas of trust by heavily praising the police.  Politicians across the spectrum are talking about how they were extremely professional and ready for the situation. Just as crisis experts advise parents to emphasise security, Danish rhetoric reiterates the idea that Danes are safe and will continue to be.  Even the Danish newspaper Politiken tempered their editorial’s critique by acknowledging that hindsight is 20/20.

READ MORE: Home Guard checking its holsters

Back to their roots
Denmark has historically revolved around its own core values and strong national identity.  In 1864, when faced with a threat to its very existence, Denmark was forced to become self-aware and cultivate what it means to be Danish.  Although the country is becoming increasingly diverse, an overarching identity is comforting.  Danes like to joke that smallness is what makes Denmark great.  

However, some also worry the Danish character is one that takes freedom of speech out of bounds.  Danes are known for their bluntness, sometimes to the point of being culturally insensitive.  People are crossing their fingers that civilians, politicians and the media respond constructively, especially given Denmark’s history with controversy.  In 2005, the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published 12 cartoons depicting Mohammed in an effort to debate self-censorship in art and critique of Islam.  As a result, Danish flags were burned, embassies ransacked and 138 people died in clashes around the world.  In 2007, a Swedish cartoonist, who many believe motivated the theatre cafe attack in Østerbro, depicted Mohammed as a dog.  

“We sometimes take freedom of speech a little far, because we can.  And that’s a little childish.  A little bit immature,” Jungersen said, flailing her hands to mimic a toddler throwing a temper tantrum. 

A father of two, wishing not to be named due to the sensitive nature of the subject, said: “We all want to show we will protect our basic rights and societal values.  It is a natural reflex.  My concern is that some Danes may want to ‘fight back’ by very actively taking the freedom of speech to the extreme.” 

Strength found in national identity 
Despite this sentiment, caution should not be confused with fear.  Confidence in Denmark and other Danes prevailed.   

“I’m so proud of being Danish right now,” said Foighel.  As a young Jewish man whose own bar mitzvah was defended by Dan Uzan, the volunteer guard shot outside the synagogue, he was resolute in his grief.  He brimmed with hope for the future and was eager to talk about Uzan.

The attack hit close to home, as the Jewish community is small in Denmark — 6,000 to 7,000 people total and around 2,000 active practicing members.

“I remember when I was 13, I had to arm wrestle him to be a grown-up man, because he was the strongest of all of the guards,” he said of Uzan with a sad smile. 

“When someone Jewish dies, it’s like one of us dies. If one of us succeeds, it’s like all of us succeeds. There’s this connection,” said Anuck Germon, a Parisian student who moved to Copenhagen six months ago.

READ MORE: Jewish community radio station shuts down in wake of terror attacks

Close-knit Copenhagen
Everyone had a connection to the events.  One of my Danish friends lives near el-Hussein’s apartment in Nørrebro and awoke that morning to sounds of gunfire outside.  He was escorted out by police the next day and likened the surreal scene to an American movie.  Another American student was trapped in the streets at the time of the second shooting as public transportation screeched to a halt and bars went into lockdown.

Comparatively, I was unscathed.  The proximity of it all still unnerved me.  Everything felt a little too close for comfort, but the size of Copenhagen also leads to the uniquely resilient community and the lack of fear that I’ve seen.  

“It’s a different reaction. In France, it was just a demonstration. Here, it’s something more,” said Germon. 

The prime minister, Helle Thorning-Schmidt, is also touting this very togetherness to downplay any fear mongering, saying “this is not a war between Islam and the West” and “when the Jewish community is attacked, the whole of Denmark is attacked.”  The Danish Islamic Board, Danish Muslims Union and the Muslims for Peace have all denounced el-Hussein’s actions and stressed that terrorism should never be justified.

READ MORE: Most Muslim organisations condemn weekend terror attacks

A group in the Nørrebro community responds
A slightly different lack of fear was also noticeable at Mjolnerparken, where el-Hussein was killed.  Earlier this week, 30-40 young Muslim men brazenly approached a small memorial collection outside el-Hussein’s apartment building and threw the flowers down the street.  They hastily posted signs that said “May Allah be merciful, rest in peace” in both Arabic and Danish, quickly prayed and were documented on camera yelling “Allahu Akbar” (God is great) as they left the scene. 

Some say they did so because flowers are contrary to Muslim burial customs, while others, including the young man who made a Facebook page entitled “Je Suis Omar,” say it is because they wanted to recognise el-Hussein’s humanity.  After a nationwide backlash, he told the Danish channel TV2 that his page was not meant to honour terrorism.  Later on that day, another group quietly removed the previous signs. 

READ MORE: Young Danes praise El-Hussein

Comforted together by attempts at nomality
At the city centre synagogue, chattering teenagers wearing matching woollen scarves lay their own flowers on top of the already heaping memorial on the way to class.  Observers with drawn faces pay their respects while others bike slowly by, curious but determined to live their lives as normally as possible. 

People like these all around the city comfort me.  Although Copenhagen will undoubtedly face many challenges in the days and weeks ahead, what I’ve seen gives me confidence in their ability to protect each other, and even wannabe Danes like me, from fear. 

I’m no longer afraid and neither are they.  

As the six o’clock church bells tolled and the Jewish memorial service began, Foighel paused from brewing a cappuccino to look outside. His eyes shone with determination.  

“It’s nice to see that this very bad incident brought more people together,” he said.  “Now we are more one nation than ever before.”  

Kylie Mohr is an aspiring journalist, world traveller and junior at Georgetown University in Washington DC. She is spending a year abroad in Copenhagen to study media and political science.

  • How internationals can benefit from joining trade unions

    How internationals can benefit from joining trade unions

    Being part of a trade union is a long-established norm for Danes. But many internationals do not join unions – instead enduring workers’ rights violations. Find out how joining a union could benefit you, and how to go about it.

  • Internationals in Denmark rarely join a trade union

    Internationals in Denmark rarely join a trade union

    Internationals are overrepresented in the lowest-paid fields of agriculture, transport, cleaning, hotels and restaurants, and construction – industries that classically lack collective agreements. A new analysis from the Workers’ Union’s Business Council suggests that internationals rarely join trade unions – but if they did, it would generate better industry standards.

  • Novo Nordisk overtakes LEGO as the most desirable future workplace amongst university students

    Novo Nordisk overtakes LEGO as the most desirable future workplace amongst university students

    The numbers are especially striking amongst the 3,477 business and economics students polled, of whom 31 percent elected Novo Nordisk as their favorite, compared with 20 percent last year.