Making History

As the United States comes to grips with yet another young Black man shot dead by police and the inevitable civil unrest that follows, spare a thought for Iceland.

Yes Iceland. You know that Nordic country full of active volcanoes that sits at the top of the world.

This week Iceland made history. Its police force shot a man dead. In America where gun culture and the right to bear arms is as entrenched as apple pie this is everyday stuff. But not in Iceland. Police shooting anyone dead in Iceland simply does not happen. In fact this is the first time it has happened since 1944 when the country became independent.

The police in Iceland usually don’t carry guns. Violent crime in Iceland is almost non-existent. You might think that Iceland is anti-gun, but it isn’t. It ranks 15th in world in terms of per capital gun ownership. It’s just that they recognize that guns are dangerous, should be handled with care and are not to be used to randomly shoot people just because you happened to have a disagreement.

As you’d expect the news has the country reeling. The news editor at the Icelandic broadcasting service reported that the nation was in shock. This does not happen in our country, he said. So what did happen to trigger this unprecedented Icelandic police response?

Well it seems that a 59-year-old man, said to be suffering from mental problems, began behaving in a threatening manner at the building where he lives. Police were called but when they arrived he began shooting at them. Police exchanged fire and in the ensuing gun battle the man was killed. Like I said. Unprecedented. In Iceland.

Icelanders are worried because this has got the whole country debating the issue. They are also worried that this incident might change the country forever. And not in a good way. As one commentator said guns are part of the Icelandic culture. They are used for hunting as a sport but they don’t want to see their police force being forced to carry firearms, which are seen as dangerous and threatening.

The Icelandic police force says the officers involved in the incident will undergo grief counseling. And in a concept that will be pretty alien to most Americans the police have already apologized to the family of the man who died. Mind you not because they did the wrong thing but because it was the respectful thing to do. And also because the police were genuinely sorry they took a life. Could you see that happening in the United States?

There are still a number of outstanding questions that the Icelandic police are yet to answer such as why they didn’t try to negotiate with the man before entering the building. But most Icelanders are wondering where this is all going to lead.

This is a country where you can enter Parliament and the only request they make is to turn off your cellphone, so that you don’t disturb the politicians while they’re talking. Armed guards DON’T follow the Prime Minister or the country’s President. Icelanders don’t want that to change. But they might just find they have no choice.

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