The Swedish crime writer Henning Mankell takes a dark view of his country, pitching his detective, Inspector Kurt Wallander, against the most gruesome serial killers. Mankell's novels bristle with Russian mafiosi, neo-Nazi groups and terrified asylum-seekers, leading Wallander to reflect that something has gone profoundly wrong with Sweden's model social democracy. In a macabre parallel with events in Stockholm last week, Mankell's novel Sidetracked begins with the killing of a former cabinet minister, who is found murdered and scalped. Some readers will no doubt see the assassination of Anna Lindh, Sweden's popular foreign minister, as providing further evidence for Wallander's gloomy thesis.
The murder was a horrible, senseless event, reopening the wounds created by the assassination of the country's prime minister, Olof Palme, in 1986. Lindh's attacker fled the scene of the crime, a department store in Stockholm, offering a painful reminder of the fact that Palme's assassin has never been caught. Lindh's death has caused feelings of shock, grief and revulsion. Women spoke of her as a role model, encouraged by her ability to combine a political career with a happy marriage, and even her opponents recognised her unswerving commitment to human rights. She was admired and envied for her determination to speak her mind, memorably mocking George Bush as a "lone ranger" for going to war against Iraq.
Yet before the obituaries of Sweden's tolerant, law-abiding democracy are composed, it is worth putting the dreadful assault on Lindh in context. It is not quite a year since Bertrand Delanoe, the popular socialist mayor of Paris, needed emergency surgery after being stabbed in the stomach during an all-night cultural festival. Three months earlier, a man fired at President Jacques Chirac during the Bastille Day parade. Earlier this year, a deranged man shot dead eight councillors in Nanterre. Six years ago, Philippe Douste-Blazy, the French culture minister, was stabbed while campaigning for parliamentary elections. In March, Serbia's prime minister, Zoran Djindjic, was gunned down in Belgrade. A year earlier, the same fate befell Pim Fortuyn, the populist right-wing politician in the Netherlands.
Fortuyn's murder, in a country that prides itself on its relaxed style of politics, prompted exactly the kind of soul-searching that has been going on in Sweden since Lindh's death was announced on Thursday. In Britain, the risk to politicians was confirmed by an assault three years ago on Nigel Jones, Liberal Democrat MP for Cheltenham, who was attacked by a man wielding a samurai sword. His assistant, Andrew Pennington, died in the incident and was posthumously awarded the George Medal for gallantry.
There is no consistent motive running through this grim record. Delanoe is openly gay and seems to have been targeted by a homophobe; the man convicted of Fortuyn's murder was an animal rights activist who objected to the politician's anti-immigration policies; and Chirac's would-be assassin was a neo-Nazi. What seems indisputable is an observation by the French prime minister, Jean-Pierre Raffarin, that the attack on Delanoe is evidence of a level of insecurity that is "a real problem for our democracy". Raffarin's analysis does not apply only to France: Lindh's murder draws attention to the existence of a small but alarming fringe of discontented, angry people - weird loners as well as members of terrorist organisations and neo-Nazi parties - who pose a threat to the lives of public figures.
Why this should be - whether the instability of the world we live in encourages unstable individuals towards violent acts - is an urgent question. It is certainly the case that the 21st century, with its ghastly succession of wars, massacres and terrorist attacks, is much more frightening and insecure than anyone would have dared to predict. Following Lindh's death, politicians are going to have to be much more wary, but the degree of protection that might have saved her - armed bodyguards, even on a shopping trip - is unacceptably intrusive to anyone who wants to lead a normal life. In that sense, whether her murder turns out to be politically motivated or the action of a deranged misogynist, it has ramifications right across Europe. The message is not that something is rotten in the state of Sweden, but that all our democracies are vulnerable to what Mankell has called "faceless killers".
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