I walked home today. It took 1hr 20 mins or so. It was not a walk for health or exercise reasons, even though I engage in such activities on a regular basis. It was because something terrible has happened in Stockholm: A hijacked truck was driven into the crowded shopping district between Hörtorget and Stockholm Central, killing several, wounding a number and smashing into the outer wall of the Åhlens department store along Klarabergsgatan. At this point it is unconfirmed whether the objective of this crashed truck was terrorism, but as noted by Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Lofven, it has a lot in common with terrorism.
When the incident went down, I was at the office and someone exclaimed that a truck had smashed through the inevitable crowd at the city center. It was a distressing revelation, because it is something that cannot be easily defended against: Any crazy person could elect to use any heavy vehicle as a battering ram without warning. It also made me think about how terrorist elements in the post 9-11 world are having increasingly great returns on investment.
In the September 11 attacks, an attack would have required extensive planning with a large team, synchronized execution and the now infamous result of the downing of the Twin Towers. Now, we are faced with lone wolf attacks involving vehicles or melee weaponry that could have been acquired on impulse and used with minimal planning.
This development is especially effective: The single crash at Stockholm Central resulted in the entire shopping district being turned into a giant crime scene. Streets were cordoned off, entire malls were evacuated, and the public transport system was shut down for security reasons. The economic and psychological cost to Sweden in proportion to what it takes to hijack a truck for a suicidal joyride is just staggering.
The problem now is that there’s an arms race between security forces and radical elements. The security forces have elected to beef up their protection capabilities at great expense, while radicals are finding increasingly cheap ways to inflict massive damage on their targets. In a war of attrition, the radicals are winning: It is impractical to infinitely scale up security. Already it has reached the point where larger electronics are being banned on aircraft, and even utility knives are frowned upon in many places.
Rather than escalate security and militarization to the point that it becomes impossible to live a normal life, one needs to ask hard questions about why radical ideologies are continuing to fester. Research by the NYU has found that there is a strong correlation between inequality and extremism (which has its early symptom in polarization). It is a known cycle of war, reconstruction, growth and revolution where growth results in a build up of wealth at the top and envious sorts look on with eagerness to tear down the highfalutin aristocrats. And here we are, sitting at the cusp of a quarter century with wealth inequality not unlike that of the pre-war periods. It is food for thought.
Today Stockholm had a tiny taste of what a people at war face on a daily basis in their homelands: Any moment on any given day, a terrible machine or group of very violent people may come along and wreck everything they hold dear. I look back at Singapore, with its massively crowded areas and widespread availability of vehicles, and think about just how vulnerable it is to similar tactics. No place is invulnerable.
I managed to walk home today. The walk took around 1hr 20 mins. I am lucky. Some people are not going home tonight, because their homes are too far away to walk to, and they are staying with friends, relatives or even strangers (#openstockholm is a fine movement, a sign of the resilience of this city in the face of attack). And some will never go home, because of some peoples’ madness. Stockholm as a city, as a people, is strong. However, everyone would be stronger yet if the cancer of poisonous ideologies can be treated.