Wednesday, 27 February 2013

Iceland: Rise of the vigilantes

Over the past years I’ve come to notice a worrying trend here in Iceland. A trend that some people probably won’t dare to talk about publicly. I’m talking about vigilantism, something one certainly wouldn’t connect with Iceland.

On multiple occasions I’ve experienced that people here take the law into their own hands. It seems that many people don’t consider the measures or punishment executed by police and law as satisfactory.

And by vigilantism I’m talking about having certain people beaten up or threatened. If you piss off the wrong people, they will call somebody who will teach you a lesson.

I had one of my first experiences with this practice a few years ago, when my former boss and owner of the bar I worked at went bankrupt, cheated a lot of employees of their money and ended up owing a lot of people a lot of money. This shady guy “fell down the stairs.”

Another incident happened at another bar I used to work. Some drugged-up maniac went crazy attacking a few guests. So a few calls were made to ensure he wouldn’t ever come back. I can only imagine what that means.

And these cases are not exceptions.

If you become victim of any kind of injustice, it is not so difficult to find the culprit as Reykjavík (and anywhere else in Iceland) is a rather small and tight-knit community.

Somebody is harassing you, you call somebody to teach the thug a lesson. Somebody owes you money or stole your car? No matter if you need a debt paid or just revenge, all you need to do is make that call.

In public this vigilante practice is of course not accepted, but behind closed doors some people seek this form of extrajudicial punishment.

I argued about this with some Icelandic friends of mine as I am still shocked and appalled by this frontier justice every time I come across it. To me, taking the law into one’s own hands is just inappropriate, a relic of the Wild West, and I don’t find it acceptable for an advanced Western country like Iceland in the 21st century.

One should leave punishment up to the legal authorities.

My friends disagreed with me because the authorities never take the appropriate measures, according to them. “The police don’t do anything. They won’t help you” is an argument I’ve heard very often in the almost seven years that I’ve lived here.

It seems that many Icelanders don’t have any trust in their police or the legal system and therefore just “solve” their issues among themselves.

Granted, from my personal experience I can say that I do not have much faith in the Icelandic police either as they seem to be infuriatingly passive when it matters.

And talking about insufficient punishment—a few court decisions of late have caused public outcry such as the more than pathetic verdict by the Supreme Court in a case of sexual assault. Reading
this article by Iceland Review guest contributor Herdís Helga Schopka shows perfectly why people feel let down by the legal system and why they feel like they need to take matters into their own hands.

I can really understand the wish for revenge (as petty as it may be) and the need for real justice.

But hiring a bunch of thugs to physically hurt somebody else cannot be the answer. I mean, this is Iceland (Iceland, the world’s most peaceful country with a very low crime rate) in 2013, for crying out loud, not some mafia infested, gun-slinging place.

I guess those vigilante methods are an inheritance of the Icelandic Viking ancestors.

Does the end justify the means?

By Katharina Hauptmann. This article first appeared in Icelandic Review here (htp: Nourishing Obscurity).

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