On the morning of 2 December, armed police went to an apartment on the east side of the city. A man had been reported shooting a shotgun in his apartment, and the entire complex was evacuated as tensions mounted. The shooter refused to give himself up, and continued blasting away indiscriminately. Tear gas was fired into the apartment in an attempt to subdue the 59-year-old. All to no avail. Finally, the armed special forces team burst into the room. Two officers were shot by the man at close range, one in the face, another in the hand. Finally, the man was shot. He was rushed to hospital, but died of his injuries.
The chief of police offered his condolences to the family of the deceased, as the nation plummeted into mourning at the scale and scope of the tragedy. The armed agents were all sent to counselling to cope with the trauma, both in terms of what had happened to their team, but also to deal with their role in the death of one of their citizens.
It should be clear by now that this story is not American. Nor is it British. The city is Reykjavik, the country Iceland. And it’s all true, as Icelanders come to grips with a new reality, for never before in the country’s history have the police killed anyone. That’s worth dwelling on. Never before have the Icelandic police shot and killed anyone. No one. Ever.
In 2012, US law enforcement officers killed 587 people in cases of justifiable homicide. Iceland is a small country, with a population of only 320, 000, so statistically, the US, with a similar population, would average under 1 police homicide per year, but that would account for many deaths over the past decades, since Iceland’s independence from Denmark in 1944. Up to last week, Iceland had averaged precisely 0 deaths per year. None.
What I don’t want to dwell on is the differences in law enforcement culture, but on broad cultural attitudes to violence. Violence is clearly not a problem which is limited to law enforcement in the US. In 2009, the US had 15, 000 homicides. Iceland had 1. Per capita that is a ratio of about 15:1. While the US leads the world in per capita gun ownership, Iceland places a respectable 15th.
But even then, I don’t want to dwell on statistics, because that is not what this story is about.
This story is about shock. It is about the perception of death as tragic. Not “tragic” in an affectatious “oh what a tragedy” way which is so commonplace in our culture, but tragic in a deeply traumatising way. Tragic at a deep, spiritual level.
I’m reminded of the famous fact about counterfeit spotters: they never look at counterfeits. They study real money over and over and over, so that when something is out of place, it is glaringly obvious. Any aberration from the norm is jarring, seismic in its difference.
Through this filter, we see what happens when peace is broken amongst the peaceful. A mentally ill man had a violent outburst, and was killed by police. And an entire nation is now mourning. It is that profound sense within Icelanders that “We are not like that”.
If we are to be messengers of peace, the harbingers of the Kingdom, this must surely be our starting point. We must be students of real, authentic, pervasive peace. We must be rocked, staggered by tragedies of this sort.
We need to stop studying peace in all its counterfeit forms. We need to seek out the real thing.
On a little island in the middle of the Atlantic, where once were written the great Sagas of old, tales of murder, revenge, and outrageous violence, epic in its scale and grim, vivid detail, a people have changed, and have created an alternative vision of what it is to be. And central to that vision is something for which we should all strive: Peace.
Not just “peace” as a cliche, or an alternative to active war, or a distant, ephemeral hope, but peace as an expectation. Peace as a living reality.
Perhaps we would all do well to study that.