Yesterday morning, Swedes woke up to news of a kind that has become all-too familiar: During the night, powerful bombs exploded at apartment buildings in two different towns in southern Sweden.
One person was severely injured in Åstorp, where a witness told the press: “People screamed and cried. It felt so unreal.” A resident told Radio Sweden that his 7-year-old had come running into his bedroom screaming, as the blast made their apartment shake.
In Helsingborg, the explosion was so powerful that, according to the police, cars parked nearby were destroyed. It is still unclear if the bombings are connected to each other, or who is behind them.
Since 2018, there have been almost 500 bombings—yes, bombings—in what is known as one of the most stable societies in the world.
There’s not just a bombing problem. There are shootings, too.
Sweden, which has a population of around 10 million, has the highest per-capita number of deadly shootings of 22 European countries. Forty-seven people have been shot dead so far this year, which, while far from American levels of gun homicide, is extreme for Europe. Other European countries have come to look at Sweden with horror.
It may be shocking for Americans to learn that in Sweden—the land of IKEA, Spotify and Greta Thunberg—all of this is going on. Perhaps the reason you don’t know about it is because of the uncomfortable reality of how we got here.
Among shooting suspects, 85 percent are first- or second-generation immigrants, according to the newspaper Dagens Nyheter, as immigrant neighborhoods have become hotbeds for gang crime. National Police Commissioner Anders Thornberg has described the violence as “an entirely different kind of brutality than we’ve seen before” and his deputy, Mats Löfving, says that 40 criminal clans now operate throughout the country. Spreading fear are “humiliation robberies,” targeting children and youth, in which victims are subjected to degrading treatment by assailants, such as being urinated upon. Just this week, four men were sentenced for robbing, beating and urinating on an 18-year-old, who was also filmed by his tormentors.
All of which is why, for the first time ever, crime emerged as a top priority among voters ahead of this past weekend’s general election. Swedes made their concerns plain on Sunday, when they awarded the country’s most strident anti-immigration party more than 20 percent of the vote.
The Sweden Democrats, or SD, is now the second-biggest party in parliament, and the biggest party of the right-wing bloc—gaining more votes than the more traditional center-right Moderate party. (It remains to be seen whether Ulf Kristersson, leader of the Moderates, can form a government with the support of SD, while sticking to his promise not to allow the party into the government coalition.)
So how did Sweden’s famously liberal electorate usher in a party with roots on the extreme right? In a word: denial.
In response to Sweden’s increasing problems with gang violence and social unrest in immigrant suburbs, the government’s strategy for many years was to deny how serious the situation had become. In the meantime, those people who noticed the problem—many of whom were working class—and spoke out about their diminished safety were accused of racism by leading politicians, the mainstream press, and the cultural elites. Only one political party did not: the SD. And in election after election, they gained more and more popular support.
This is a story of what happens when the people who run things want to avoid confronting the consequences of their actions.
Too Dangerous for the Ice Cream Truck
Sweden’s foreign-born population has doubled to 20 percent since 2000. No other country took in more immigrants per capita during the 2015 migration wave—from countries like Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. Nearly 23 percent of Swedish adults were born abroad. (At the height of American immigration, in 1890 that statistic was slightly less than 15 percent.) And most asylum seekers have been men. In 2015, for example, 70 percent of those seeking refuge in Sweden were male.
Many immigrants have integrated well into Swedish society, but too many have ended up in segregated suburbs, where unemployment is high and crime is rampant. In an area like Malmö’s Rosengård, for instance, labor force participation among adults is less than 50 percent, and 21 percent of households rely on social welfare.
Sweden is one of the most generous welfare states in the world: Although these neighborhoods are marked by high unemployment, there is no American-level material deprivation. Health care comes only at a token cost. Dental care is free for anyone under 19, as are schools and universities. Social service coverage is universal.
Yet police are struggling to maintain control of some 60 immigrant-majority neighborhoods—officially labeled “vulnerable areas”—where gangs and clans compete with the state for local authority. In some of these neighborhoods, like Gottsunda in the university town of Uppsala, the postal service has had to cancel deliveries for security reasons. UPS temporarily stopped delivering parcels to Rosengård in 2019.
In January of this year, Swedish public television, SVT, visited the neighborhood of Tjärna Ängar in Borlänge, Sweden’s northernmost vulnerable area. They were targeted with rock throwing on their first night and met with this demand: “Don’t badmouth Tjärna Ängar.” That was two years after the ice cream truck canceled its stop in Tjärna Ängar for security reasons. Early-morning newspaper deliveries were canceled for the same reason. Such cancellations are usually temporary, but can nevertheless have significant effects on vulnerable neighborhoods: In parts of the vulnerable suburb of Tensta in Stockholm, for instance, parking was chaos for nine months between 2016 and 2017, because the area was deemed unsafe for traffic wardens.
For years now, ambulance drivers and firefighters have had to await police escort before entering certain neighborhoods. “I know it’s sensitive and controversial,” Gordon Grattidge, head of the ambulance drivers’ union told me in an interview in 2017. “But for us it’s really a no go because we have directives not to go into dangerous situations.” Another paramedic told the press last year: “Since we work in vulnerable areas we know how some people have zero respect for other people’s lives. They don’t give a damn that we’re paramedics.”
Then, there are the bombings. A few years ago, hand grenades began appearing among criminal gangs in Sweden. Now, bombs are often home-made IEDs.
In the fall of 2019, a group of New Jersey police travelled to Stockholm to learn about the bombings first-hand. “I was shocked by the use of grenades in Sweden,” Rick Fuentes, former superintendent of the New Jersey State Police, told Svenska Dagbladet. “I’ve worked within the police for 40 years, and I’ve never heard or seen anything like it.”
By that time, the use of explosives among Sweden’s criminal gangs had reached levels that the police described as unique, not only for Sweden or Europe, but for any country in the world that was not at war.
After a particularly powerful bomb exploded at a residential building on Östermalm, an affluent part of the Stockholm city-center, in January 2020, a victim told the press how he had been watching Netflix when the explosion sent him flying to the floor. Half his left ear was blown off; months later he still suffered from reduced hearing. His two children were so frightened by the attack that ever since they refuse to sleep by the window.
“It’s awful. I’ve lived in Sweden for 35 years and I have never experienced such a situation. For two, three hours, I was deaf, I couldn’t hear anything,” said a resident of a building that was targeted in Husby just over a week later. About 50 people had to be evacuated from the building, and they described what looked like a “war scene”—a very common choice of word used by those who have experienced bombings in Sweden first-hand.
Because most bombings never make it to court––evidence is literally blown up, and a strong code of silence marks the Swedish gang scene––it has been difficult to tell the motives behind each attack. But when journalists reviewed legal verdicts in such cases between January 2018 and January 2020— 20 detonations involving 32 perpetrators—they found motives ranging from attempted murder, extortion, and revenge for infidelity. They also noted that not every single explosion is related to the gang scene, although most are.
The bombings have mainly been directed at objects—such as cars and buildings—rather than individuals, which explains why there haven’t been more deaths. Still, fatalities have included a 4-year-old girl who was killed in a car bombing in Gothenburg (2015); an 8-year-old boy who was asleep when a hand grenade was thrown into the apartment where he was staying in Gothenburg (2016); and a 63-year-old man who picked up a hand grenade lying in the street in a Stockholm suburb, thinking that it was a toy (2018). In 2019, a 23-year-old student in the university town of Lund suffered severe facial injuries when she happened to pass by a shop when a bomb exploded in a trash can outside. Her eyesight was reduced to 2 percent. She told the press in an interview that she still does not dare to walk by trash cans.
The Swedish criminologist Amir Rostami has described Sweden’s bomb epidemic as part of a cycle of violence among criminal gangs, going back some 15 years: “First they shot at legs and behinds, then they started shooting each other, then there were more shots, pure executions, and humiliation of the victims. Now we have extreme amounts of explosions,” he told the newspaper DN in 2019.
As this development picked up speed, it was considered bad taste to suggest that immigration and failed integration had led to severe problems with crime—or even that crime was a growing problem at all. This changed in the fall of 2020, when then Prime Minister Stefan Löfven of the Social Democrats, the left-wing party that has been the dominant force in Swedish politics for the last century, admitted what everybody knew: That immigration had affected crime in a negative way. His successor, Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson echoed this in her recent election campaign. “We don’t recognize our Sweden,” she said, and stressed that her government had limited migration flows to the country.
Many voters evidently thought that it was a bit of a late awakening.
‘Sweden Is Safer Than Ever’
When stories started appearing about gang-rule and attacks on people going into immigrant neighborhoods, sometimes referred to as “no-go zones,” a government agency started a PR campaign to rename them “go-go zones.” The government had help from left-leaning Swedish media. In 2015, the editorial page of Dagens Nyheter, for instance, said that people expressing alarm about crime were “safety-deniers,” and compared them to climate deniers. The Social Democratic publication Aftonbladet said in 2017 that the idea that Sweden needed to recruit more police officers was “populism at its worst,” given that “crime is declining”.
Meanwhile, the link between immigration and crime was turned into a taboo topic.
Aftonbladet, for instance, argued that there was no need for authorities to publish statistics on immigrants and crime because the very idea was inherently racist. Then-Prime Minister Stefan Löfven reiterated the same notion when he was asked whether immigration had affected crime levels. “We should act against what is wrong and criminal no matter the background and the cause. I don’t want to link crime to ethnicity,” he said in 2020––as if there were no legitimate questions about how his government’s immigration policy had affected crime.
Because consequences of failed integration––such as gang crime and social unrest––have been more acute in less affluent areas, it effectively made it possible for elites to ignore the problems for longer than large parts of the electorate could. Among progressives, such as the opera singer Malena Ernman––now perhaps mainly known as Greta Thunberg’s mother––the idea that “Sweden is safer than ever” became a slogan and an emblem of political belonging.
In the meantime, those elites dismissed any criticism of large-scale immigration as “racism.” The political editor of the Aftonbladet editorial page Karin Pettersson, for instance, claimed in 2014 that she could not even imagine an argument in favor of decreased immigration that was not racist. Even in 2021, as Sweden’s problems had become all-too evident, the Aftonbladet columnist Jan Guillou claimed that warnings of gang violence were a matter of racism: “For the Swedish public, slippery bathtubs thus constitute a considerably larger threat than armed teenage gangs with the ambition of shooting each other.” In 2020, one person died in a bathtub in Sweden, while 48 were victims of gun homicide, according to official statistics.
‘All I Want Is for My Kid Not to Get Kidnapped and Peed on’
Right now, the usual people are condemning Swedish voters—or at least the 20 percent who went for the right-wing Sweden Democrats—as racists. The SD, founded in 1988, does have roots in extreme-right circles. According to a white paper published by the party by an “independent” historian (he turned out to have been a member), a significant number of SD’s founders had ties to Nazi or fascist movements. And scandals keep rocking the party as individual candidates are exposed to have racist views.
But the party has been reformed since its early days as a fringe movement on the extreme right. SD has systematically thrown out members who have expressed racist views, including cutting off its entire youth wing. Today’s party program is that of a typical Scandinavian national populist party—and such parties have already been part of governments, and supported governments, in other Scandinavian countries.
To dismiss the party’s voters as “racists” is also to fundamentally misunderstand Sweden and what Swedes have been asked to normalize.
Friends with children in their teens and twenties tell me that the fear of crime shapes the lives of their kids and their friends. Indeed, mock elections at schools this month showed that teenagers now lean to the right, with the majority voting for parties in the right-wing bloc, including 21 percent for SD.
This is not a problem that is confined to the stereotype of the discontented “losers of globalization.” The crime wave has moved Swedish voters—rich and poor—to worry about the most elemental of needs: the safety of their loved ones, in ways that we simply didn’t use to.
As an acquaintance told me the other day, when we were talking about the election: “All I want is for my kid not to get kidnapped and peed on.”
Ulf Kristersson, leader of the Moderate Party, and Ebba Busch, leader of the Christian Democrats––the two parties at the heart of the right-wing bloc––observed in a recent op-ed that Sweden has met the threat to its global security with an historic bid to join NATO. But, they asked: “What will it take for Sweden to seriously address the great inner threats that we face today?” They also warned that “crime is nearing levels that threaten the [democratic] system”.
They are right.
Sweden’s “vulnerable” areas have turned into enclaves that threaten the ideals, values, and even the ability of the Swedish state to keep order. The gang control also threatens the safety and limits the freedom of other immigrants, making life difficult for all those who seek to integrate into Swedish society.
This is nothing less than a threat to Swedish democracy. It is about time that Sweden’s opposition steps up to deal with that threat—even if it is with the support of the Sweden Democrats.