The personal, the societal, the international
When thousands of Icelanders, expats, tourists and exchange students gathered in a memorial walking, the temperatures well below freezing, the mood was calm, quiet and collected. Participants united in a walk towards the point where Birna Brjánsdóttir had last been seen – by public cameras – to place flowers and candles at this spot, and at Arnarhóll, Reykjavik’s historically, culturally and geographically central hill.
What I gathered was quiet compassion and a distinct warmth, a shared sense of this being a real and symbolic loss to a community that rarely suffers any violent losses, in particular when taking an international perspective (New York Times coverage). Memorial events had also taken place in Greenland’s capital Nuuk, and further Greenlandic towns, as well as the Faroe Islands.
Role of community: Gemeinschaft, cohesion and cultural norms
Community and collective effort in this extremely rare case of violent crime (Iceland’s remarkably low crime rate, OSAC report 2015) have been enormous. The search-and-rescue operation for missing Birna, had been similar to those in the more frequent events of lost hikers, which entail considerable and concerted collective efforts. Here in Iceland, the planet’s most peaceful nation‘s police officers carry no firearms, the military budget constitutes 0.1% of the GDP and the country has no national military force or army. That makes the significant and effective role of civic engagement and community become even more obvious.
While Icelanders may deem this the national norm, anyone who grew up elsewhere or lived in a society that is marked by more fragmentation, separation, anonymity and lack of cohesion will have been touched by the quiet power of what German sociologist Ferdinand Tönnies coined Gemeinschaft. Outsourcing of certain tasks and relying predominantly on or even exclusively on professional specialists is not an option. This may be rooted in the geographical location and historically resulting from a strong sense of interdependence in a harsh climate and ever-present risks thanks to volcanic activity and other natural forces.
Violent and white-collar crime in transnational communities
The investigation of the violent crime has brought the aspect of community involvement to international audiences, the attention not least resulting from sustained all-time high interest by tourists. As mentioned in my previous article on tourism risk in Iceland and its characteristic two-way nature, the tragic loss of a young Icelandic woman raises awareness of usually much less visible links.
Iceland’s culture, informal norms, and practices show how civil society and community engagement encourage thought-provoking participation also in temporary visitors and those abroad, those who are maintaining an interest from the distance by the help of conventional and social media.
We also see how crime transgresses national borders. It transfers from one nation, one island to another – in this case via the Greenlandic seafood trawler Polar Nanoq which had a substantial amount of drugs on board. We may notice also how little known and understood Greenland’s societal issues are beyond the confines of the Nordic nations, and Nordic co-operation, such as the Arctic Council’s activities (2016 Assembly, panel on mental health issues). Greenland, not a member of the EU or Schengen Area, as the Faroe Islands, is subject to Danish authority, which includes border control issues, and immigration into Greenland.
The painful violent loss of a young woman’s life helps us further understand the vital role of community and civil society in resolving and preventing crime. In this sense, the police investigations, so far, have highlighted some interconnected aspects, such as:
- the links between violent crime and white-collar crime:
transnational drug trafficking tends to involve money laundering (of proceeds) as well as subsequent tax evasion, bribery (of various officials in the process of transnational drug smuggling) and document fraud.
- the links between regulation, law enforcement, and civil society engagement: this case of illicit drug smuggling triggered public debate and community awareness which is required in order to ensure effective prevention of future drug trafficking (or border-transgressing human trafficking which Denmark is a hotspot of);
- the broader context in which the Greenlandic suspects have been living and societal challenges due to interrelated and rapid environmental, economic and societal changes. Notably, a significant school drop-out rate, frequent alcoholism, and domestic violence (see 2014 European Parliament’s Greenland in-depth report), physical and mental health issues provide challenges to the society as a whole.
Civil society engagement in both nations, Iceland and Greenland, at this time of shock and grief, have shown that the response and engagement of the wider society are absolutely vital in awareness-raising. The resulting and ongoing discussion of meaningful ways, responses and mechanisms are central to effective prevention of future crimes, whether in Iceland or Greenland.
At the time of writing the case is still under investigation and a final report of the findings has not yet been published.