Caution `behind the scenes'

SUN JOURNAL

Denmark: Though there are fears of attacks, citizens are not consumed by security.

April 04, 2004|By Todd Richissin | Todd Richissin,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

COPENHAGEN, Denmark - When the gleaming subway train glides to a silent halt deep underground, students hunched with backpacks pile out of the cars along with men and women grasping briefcases and shoppers heavy with goods.

The crowd is just what one would expect in this pleasantly bustling city.

What is unusual, compared with much of the rest of the world, is what is missing: There is not a police officer in sight. There are no security guards, no posters warning of ownerless bags, no visible signs of security whatsoever, anywhere. There is not so much as a driver on the train; it is run by computer.

This is the atmosphere in which most of Denmark's 5.3 million citizens live - despite having more than 400 troops stationed in Iraq, despite warnings that terrorist sympathizers are in Denmark and despite the March 11 bombings in Madrid.

Danes have made a conscious decision not to become consumed by the threat of an attack on their soil, not to let terrorists "win," as one university professor puts it, by lessening their quality of life.

Security officials may want to talk about terrorism, but atop the agenda for most people here are debates about the environment, whether a tax cut will harm public services and how to reform immigration law while remaining compassionate to the world's oppressed.

"There is a general agreement among the Danish, sometimes spoken and sometimes unspoken, not to be haunted by the fear of what is conceivable," says Henrik Bang, a political scientist at the University of Copenhagen. "There is strong consensus that we will not allow ourselves to become a police state, and we will not put limits on democracy that shouldn't be there.

"We will not allow every discussion in Denmark to be about terrorism."

That is in sharp contrast, of course, to the United States, where discussions of terrorism dominate political debate. And it is in sharp contrast to much of Europe, where, since the Madrid attacks, borders have been tightened, civil liberties have been outweighed by security concerns and where anxieties of another attack are running higher than at any time since immediately after the 2001 attacks in the United States.

In Poland, police with bomb-sniffing dogs stop subway passengers at random to check their bags. In Paris, police and soldiers seem to be everywhere, often stopping men who appear Muslim to question them. Madrid's streets, trains and airport are swamped with police.

And in London, Scotland Yard's chief has said that an attack on the city is "inevitable," newspapers have been publishing tips on how to avoid becoming a victim and what to do in case of attack. Some commuters are abandoning the subway in favor of buses, and billboard-size signs have been posted in train stations, telling people to keep an eye open for abandoned bags that might be filled with explosives.

Not here.

Erik Jensen, 40, manager of a clothing store in central Denmark, says the bombing of Madrid, and his country's participation in the coalition that invaded Iraq, has not affected him or his friends, at least as far as making them nervous about an attack.

"In Spain, in London, there have been bombings for years," he says, standing in front of a huge American flag hung behind his checkout counter and referring to attacks by the Basque separatist group ETA and the Irish Republican Army. "In Denmark, we have never had anything to worry about. It is not like the Danes to walk around filled with anxiety."

There is a phrase in Denmark, "the Danish way," that is heard time and again, and it means many things.

Mostly, though, it refers - as paradoxical as the definition may seem - to a sort of collective individualism, where people do mostly what they want but with tangible help for one another, the government's primary role being to help distribute the country's wealth by taxing heavily to pay for some of the world's most advanced public services - top health care, top schools, an exceptionally generous welfare program.

And then the government is expected to get out of the way.

Drugs are illegal, but there is almost no enforcement against use of the softer variety. Same-sex unions have been legally recognized for years. People gamble openly in bars that stay open until dawn, religious freedom is a cornerstone of society and Denmark's acceptance rate of asylum-seekers has historically been the highest in Europe.

"Behind the scenes, there is a lot going on to guard against terrorism, but that's how Danes want it - behind the scenes," says Peter Viggo Jakobsen, an analyst at the Danish Institute for International Studies. "You won't see Danes running around scared because, first, they genuinely don't think they're at risk, and second, they see it as the responsibility of the government to protect them."

For all the seeming nonchalance here, the government has been issuing warnings about the threat of attack.

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