Copenhagen attacks; violence unfolds in Europe again

     Attendees of a talk entitled Art Blasphemy and Freedom and Expression were attacked with automatic weapon fire in Copenhagen on Valentine’s Day around 4:00pm CET wounding five police officers and killing one man, 55 year-old Danish filmmaker Finn Noergaard. The gunmen fled the scene in a vehicle which police later recovered about 8 km northwest of the scene of the shooting. Then in the early morning hours of Sunday 15 February, the attacker carried out another shooting at a synagogue where one security guard was also killed. Again he was able to flee the scene and remained on the run until he attempted to return to an address the police had under surveillance and was shot dead.

     While the suspects’ motivation remains technically unclear, it is widely reported that it was inspired by the shooting at Charlie Hebdo in Pairs last month and that his target was likely Lars Vilks, a Swedish satirical cartoonist. Vilks is no stranger to this kind of threat. He was one of the first to publish a caricature of the prophet Mohammed in 2007 which landed him a fatwa from al-Qaeda in Iraq which included six-figure reward. While Vilks condemned the violent act, he brazenly told the Associated Press that he was also unfazed; “I’m not shaken at all by this incident. Not the least.”

“I’m not shaken at all by this incident. Not the least,” states Lars Vilks.

     The suspect in both attacks was a 22-year-old Danish citizen Omar El-Hussein, who had a history of violence and weapons charges. While it is believed that he acted alone, and no known extremist group has claimed responsibility for the attack, this has not deterred strong language from Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt;

“We feel certain now that it was a politically motivated attack, and thereby it was a terrorist attack”. Adding, “there are forces that want to harm Denmark, that want to crush our freedom of expression, our belief in liberty.”

     Condemnations also came in from many Western leaders following suit including Françaois Hollande, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and our own Prime Minister Stephen Harper who tweeted;

“Horrified by the act of terror in Copenhagen. Our thoughts and prayers are w/Denmark. We stand strong w/our allies against such atrocities.”

     The parallels between the Charlie Hebdo attack and this most recent one are almost unbelievable. Both attacks consisted of two shootings, one which aimed to attack an ideological precept, namely free speech, and the other an attack on the Jewish community. Both initial shootings in broad daylight with automatic weapons, both with targets of satirical cartoonists, both end in bloodshed for victims and suspect(s). Both were followed by sweeping ideological responses from powerful heads-of-state and calls from Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu for a “massive immigration” of Jews from Europe.

     The frustration and anger that mounted in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo shootings, now seems to have broken into exasperation. How do we respond to what seems unresolvable? How do we address these acts of violence in our communities? David Cameron had this to say;

“The shootings in Copenhagen are an appalling attack on free speech and religious freedom. Two innocent people have been murdered simply for their beliefs . . .”

     The problem is though, is it really? And what are the dangers in claiming it as one? Realistically this young man was a 22 year-old Danish national, he had never traveled to a conflict zone and there are still no connections support radicalization. So what is a terrorist act? If an attack is ideologically motivated? Does it have to be planned or orchestrated by a known terrorist group? Can an individual, acting on his own be considered a terrorist (versus a criminal) simply on the basis of the target of his crime? Furthermore, at what point does an attack warrant a grandiose ideological response and when it is simply criminal mimicry? While Danish police have not finished their forensic investigation, at this time it appears as though the suspect had no accomplices and no overtly declared motivation except what can be inferred from his targets. Does this merit a response which places this act of violence in opposition to the very foundations of Western society itself?

     In essence all violence is conducted from the same mixture of righteousness and desperation; even our own. Terrorism as violence works because it speaks to the possibility for violence that is innate within all of us. Violence cannot literally attack an abstract ideal. It cannot damage something held in the heart of a person or society, it can only slowly erode its’ integrity until they believe that’s all they are.