Judging by the media coverage these days, downtown Reykjavík is a dangerous place to be after dark. If you don’t get smashed in the face with a bottle or stabbed in the back five times, you’re still lucky to get home before someone slips you a roofie or steals your cell phone. People from across the increasingly spread-out Reykjavík area are scared to venture anywhere near the pub-lined streets of Laugavegur on weekends. Little old ladies and hardened policemen are unanimous in their horror and condemnation of the apparent lack of discipline and rule of law. What’s clearly needed here – they say – are more powers for the police, more funding for the police, more everything for these brave defenders of freedom. Whatever we can spare in the way of civil liberties, I’m sure the police will gladly take off our hands, as well.
Geir Jón Þórisson, Reykjavík’s chief of police and part-time bouncer for Stöð 2, is certainly looking to capitalise on the wave of paranoid hysteria that has followed a recent spate of stabbings. If you can even call two incidents a spate; trickle seems a more appropriate word. In any case, Mr. Þórisson had no problem identifying the cause and potential solution to the problem that he himself told us was getting out of control. The lack of discipline in Icelandic society in general, he said, needed to be counteracted with tougher legislation and more police powers. Oh, and money. You see, Geir Jón has big ideas for the future of our little island, big ideas that would require not just further unfettering of his hands, but more money and more policemen under his command. He has floated ideas such as a total ban on the carrying of knives and making body searches mandatory for bar patrons in downtown Reykjavík. Never mind all the professions (and, in fact, everyday situations) that require some kind of pocket knife. And if something other than a weapon were to be discovered during a routine search, well that person was breaking the law anyway.
That’s the thing. You can’t argue with the fact that totally outlawing all knives would put an end to stabbings, not any more than you can dispute the effect a total elimination of all water would have on drownings. If we double the amount of police officers on the street, triple their budget and give them more or less unrestricted powers to waltz in and out of our homes on a whim – we will see a dramatic drop in crime. The question is not what would solve the alleged problem, but what we are prepared to give up in order to fix it.
To be sure, the world has had enough experience with governments and police forces overstepping their bounds to know that rarely if ever do authorities give back lost civil liberties or relinquish any powers they have managed to wrest from the people and their constitution. In the United States, people opposed to the unnervingly wide-ranging powers given to their government by the terror-inspired Patriot Act like to quote Jefferson’s famous quip about not giving up essential freedoms for temporary security. In the Icelandic context, it might actually be more appropriate to quote Darth Dick Cheney himself: “It is easy to take liberty for granted, when you have never had it taken from you.”
Living and partying in downtown Reykjavík, one could be blissfully unaware of the “reality” of constant stabbings and grotesque violence if it were not presented to us in the form of hysterical reporting from the media and ominous pronouncements from the police. Certainly, these things do happen. Certainly, no one wants to get stabbed and no one approves of stabbings. Curbing violence and lawlessness is something that should be an important concern in any free society – there are few greater freedoms than the freedom to live free from the threat of violence, and in safeguarding that aspect of our liberty the police can potentially be our most valuable allies. What we mustn’t do is to allow the interests of the police force itself to shape the discourse over their role in society, nor can we allow ourselves to give in to the fear of the month and start chipping away at our civil liberties every time we’re told the sky is falling.