Because This Is Not Disneyland! - The Reykjavik Grapevine

Because This Is Not Disneyland!

Published October 27, 2014

That's why 250 machineguns are none of your business - Debates on Monday #7

Haukur Már Helgason
Photos by
The Reykjavík Police
Movie stills

That's why 250 machineguns are none of your business - Debates on Monday #7

Last Monday, the forecast predicted that any upcoming debates would be rather pointless, void of content and consequences. We have yet to see about the consequnces, but last week turned out to be pretty loaded with content. The content: Cargo. A somewhat secret cargo. And lethal, at that. What matters is who brought it, why and possibly how. We know who, as in: the police did. The why and the how have been causing debates.

As you probably know, the cargo is weapons. Guns. The bang-bang kind. And the ratatatatat. The police is getting some.

Distinguishing between bang-bang and ratatat

You are familiar with Glocks. No, you are. A Glock is a semi-automatic handgun from Austria, the weapon of choice for law-enforcement all over. It’s the kind of gun you see Bruce Willis sporting as officer John McLane. There may or may not be some Glocks in the cargo. Probably not a lot, because the police are said to be already well equipped with those. What the container is full of is the ratatat type of gun. They’re called MP5. High-quality submachine guns manufactured in Germany. Sub, in this case, does not mean small or minor: submachine guns are machine guns proper. You will see MP5s in such films as Zero Dark Thirty, in the hands of Osama Bin Laden’s gunmen, and in The Dark Knight Rises, employed by Gotham’s SWAT teams. Armies use them, as well as all sorts of special forces. And back in the ’70s, the German terrorist group Rote Armee Fraktion sported one in their logo. Until recently, however, you would not have seen these things in the hands of regular police officers. Two years ago the police department in Ferguson, Missouri, reportedly bought four pieces. And just now, Icelandic police departments acquired at least 150.

Iceland has been on the top of the so-called Global Peace Index, seven years in a row. Top, as in number one. Obviously, peace is not simply quantifiable, but most seem to agree that this indicates something. Why would the regular police force in such a country need to carry weapons worthy of Iron Man 2 through their daily routine? You’ve seen those cops, cuddling cats and parrots and skateboarding and stuff. Well, they’ve told us why. Because this is reality. It’s a crazy world out there, kid. Life ain’t no Disneyland. Being prepared is what the Police is for. You do want good to conquer evil, don’t you?

From the Police Instagram account

MP5s in all police cars?

Nobody knew about the weapons until last Monday, when DV broke the news. In the report, a police officer, who chose to remain anonymous, explained that the submachine guns are intended to prepare the forces for terrorist attacks such as the one conducted in Norway in 2011. He said that all police vehicles are now supposed to be equipped with an MP5, to ensure any officer’s capability in tough circumstances. He claimed that in general, policemen were happy about the added artillery.

DV’s report claimed that police authorities bought 200 MP5s from Norway, making the exchange the most drastic increase in the force’s weaponry since the establishment of its SWAT-team in 1982. Since the report, authorities have been busy saying no. Vigorously. What they mean to refute has, however, not been quite consistent, making what ensued not so much a debate as a dispute.

Nothing to see here, move along, please

First of all, Chief Superintendent Jón Bjartmarz, who refused to answer any questions made by DV’s journalists, appeared on RÚV’s Kastljós to explain, among other things, that the police has possessed machine guns “ever since after the Gútto-fight,” a clash between police and workers protesting against announced wage reductions, back in 1932. Implicitly, that seemed to validate what some people fear, that the guns might be intended mainly to suppress any potential popular uprisings. In the recently disclosed report on police organization during protest gatherings since 2008, Police staff seem frustrated not to have always had the upper hand. According to research, Jón has at times pressed for greater use of force against the public. The point that Jón wanted to make, however, was that since the police has been equipped with lethal weapons for so long, fundamentally, nothing is changing.

Jón also pointed out that the police would not receive 200 pieces, as claimed by DV’s report, but a mere 150. The rest of the 250 submachine guns acquired from the Norwegian Army through the Coast Guard, will, it seems, remain in the Coast Guard’s possession. So there. DV was so wrong about the number of guns acquired, that they turned out to be both more numerous and fewer than reported.

Finally, Jón Bjartmarz explained that DV was wrong about all police cars being equipped with the machine guns: It will be up to police authorities in each jurisdiction, he said, to decide how many guns they need, if any, and whether they will then be kept in the cars or at the stations. Some police vehicles might, in other words, remain without submachine guns. So, there.

They got everything wrong! Everything!

Prime Minister Sigmundur Davíð’s assistant, Jóhannes Þór Skúlason, was the first near-member of government to comment on the acquisition. Through a Facebook status update, he mocked DV for getting the whole thing wrong. The damn fools didn’t realize that we didn’t spend any money to acquire the weapons: Norway gave them to the Coast Guard. As a present. When asked to verify this, spokespeople of the Norwegian Army responded that no, the weapons had been sold. The Coast Guard denied this, but Norway insisted, stating the exact amount invoiced for the guns. It all became a little embarrassing until Coast Guard representatives coughed up the explanation: the nominal price is just a question of etiquette: the Norwegians always make an invoice, they say, for their book-keeping, but we never pay it. The Coast Guard calls it an honorary arrangement. It remains to be seen if Norway feels as honored by it. Surely, the Coast Guard has not simply neglected to pay for their artillery up until now. Obviously, they would not be involved in outright embezzlement. They say the honorable exchange has been upset by the media coverage. The trust involved in such honorary arrangements takes decades to establish, they say, and now the media have, possibly, ruined it all, by reporting it. All this honor will presumably be investigated further, but regardless, DV obviously got this all wrong: the guns may be highly valuable, but taxpayers don’t pay for them. So, again, there.

From the Police Instagram account

Remember guys, our strongest weapon is sincerity

Assistant Professor Guðmundur Ævar Oddsson teaches criminology at the University of Northern Michigan. Interviewed by Vísir, he said that “almost all of the students in my criminology course, n.b. most of them criminal justice majors, found these news of the weapons acquired by Iceland’s police departments highly absurd.” Guðmundur pointed out that most of these students cherish the US Constitution’s Second Amendment, and civilians’ rights to carry arms. He went on to explain that “the frequency of serious violent crimes in Iceland, for example, measures very low in an international comparison, and incidents that call for the use of firearms are very seldom. Like one of my students put it: “It seems like they skipped a lot of steps in their arms race.””

How do you disarm knowledge and specialist insight? By “sincerity” and appeals to emotion. The guys who risk their lives to save yours, every waking hour, entered the debate. Officer Óskar Þór Guðmundsson wrote a “sincere Facebook-post” as Vísir called it, seeing some reason to circulate it further. Óskar wrote that “it is our choice, as a society, whether we expect the police to stop dangerous, armed individuals or not”. He then pleads: “Will you, dear Facebook friend, be so kind as to ponder these issues before you decide whether you trust me or not. If you decide I am not worthy of your trust, will you please articulate your reasons without prejudice so that this discussion can be beneficial to our society.” Because trust usually involves laying the most efficient available lethal weapons at a person’s disposal, you see.

Biggi the cop, popular through his sincere and friendly YouTube videos, also entered the debate, to explain that he hates guns and would prefer never to have to use one. Reality being as it is however, what with Iron Man and all, without machine guns in their cars, the police cannot make sure always to defeat the bad guys.

From the Police Instagram account

You want to hit the right man

Former police officer Vilhjálmur Árnason, now an Independence Party MP, reverted to the English language expression “attack” to further elucidate, in a radio interview: “Why did the Chief of Police say yes to this? Because he has Glock handguns all over the place. And it’s harder to take an aim, perhaps you are going to a school where there is an attack, and then you want to hit the right man.” So, once more, there.

Vilhjálmur went on to explain that the police intends never to use the machine guns as machine guns, and that their 800-rounds-a-minute capability is purely incidental to the whole affair: “The MP5 gun, it has exactly the same functionality as the Glock, unless you change the setting. You have to change it yourself to turn it into a machine gun and the police never do that, they never use it that way. That’s why we are getting a safer weapon, with a special aiming device, making it easier to take aim, in a position that policemen are much more used to, than with a handgun. So it’s just, the police just decided to buy a four-wheel drive instead of a rear-wheel drive. That’s the only thing. And they have had four-wheel drives before, they just decided to add a few more.” And that analogy holds, since there is no fundamental difference between methods of transportation and methods of killing. My mind still wandered to Andri Snær Magnason’s comparison between a domestic cat and a tiger. Have you considered updating your 4 kg feline to a 250 kg one? No?

Guns don’t kill people. The media kill people. The media should be ashamed

A number of commentators have implied, and some have explicitly stated, that the only harm done was done by the media, who so thoughtlessly informed the public about government affairs. Among those, the officer-cum-MP Vilhjálmur said that yes, he does worry that people are frightened about the artillery: “Yes, because of this irresponsible reporting by many members of Alþingi and DV, who step forward and say that the police are increasing their artillery, that they are changing their policy.” Vilhjálmur had already expressed similar sentiments in Alþngi: “That is why I want to tell some of the media and members of Alþingi that they should be ashamed for their conduct. They talk about things they do not have 100% knowledge about and they say, in a word, that it is very dangerous if the police increase their artillery, because then their adversaries, the criminals, will armorize. What has this whole discourse led to, except claiming that the police are being armed more heavily than they are? It is very serious if members of Alþingi and the media are spreading this information.” He added that he had already heard that criminals are stockpiling heavier weapons in response. Which is obviously both true and the media’s fault. Paragraph by paragraph, reading this very article is making you less and less safe.

From the Police Instagram account

If everyone agrees, it’s common sense!

Other clarifications include a blog post by the Independence Party’s former Minister of the Interior, Björn Bjarnason, who claimed that the “leaked” information about the acquired artillery may weaken the country’s defenses, and wondered if the leak should be prosecuted. To be fair, that suggestion seems to have been made in bad faith, alluding to a very different leak and its consequences. Jón Bjartmarz, the Chief Superintendent quoted above, repeatedly referred to a report gathered by the Interior Ministry under the Left-Green Party’s Ögmundur Jónasson, wherein the police was said to be in need of new equipment. He seems to have wanted to show that the political Left agrees with the Right , and hence the acquisition of weaponry lies beyond politics, in the realm of common sense. Ögmundur responded loud and clear that he would have never approved of such artillery. The only equipment in need of renewal, explicitly mentioned in the report, was in fact bullet-proof vests. But let us not obfuscate the matter with needless details: If you don’t realize that we live in a world where constant access to machine guns is common sense you are delusional.

Stop it! Stop it! You kill me!

To summarize, police authorities have stated that no, they did not receive exactly 200 machine guns, and that no, those were not exactly bought from Norway, there will not necessarily be one in every police car, they will not used as machine guns anyway, and that fundamentally nothing is changing: This is a mere technical update of already established equipment. But highly important. Please keep in mind that this is a convincing argument. Bullet-proof, if you will.

Shortly after his assistant joked about the affair, Prime Minister Sigmundur Davíð also quipped about the news, on Facebook. “Some people should stop shooting first and asking questions later,” he said “especially when it comes to machine guns.” Interior Minister Hanna Birna Kristjánsdóttir and Foreign Minister Gunnar Bragi Sveinsson both agree that any public discussion of the weapons is unnecessary. Hanna Birna commented that “this is a renewal of equipment, nothing else.” If she, an elected official of renown integrity, knew about the acquisition for at least a year and didn’t consider it newsworthy, why would you?

Feel free, however, to keep debating those tasers. For years now, literally, a debate has resurfaced from time to time, about whether the police should be equipped with tasers, as standard gear, or not. Even if under apparent pressure from police authorities, it seemed that several governments in a row still sided with those who opposed the sometimes lethal weapons. Meanwhile, somewhere within the system, a public official silently had his or her way with a much more efficient plan. Tasers are only occasionally lethal. No one argues with bang-bang, let alone ratatatatatatatatat.

What remains undisputed is that the police forces are currently engaged in quadrupling their stock of machine guns. Artillery that until recently was only in the hands of special units will be distributed to any police department willing to have some. police units that many locals have, somewhat proudly, expected to be unarmed, will, once the container is discharged, be travelling with Die Hard-worthy equipment to kill.

All we have in common

Last week the Minister of the Interior made an appearance at the annual National Church conference. She spoke of the regrettable lack of trust apparent in public debates and discussions, how that lack of trust might scare good people from participation in politics, and how hard it has made to explain to children before bed at night, that whatever people say on the TV news, we all have more in common than what sets us apart. Well, yes. There’s that. All we have in common. We, the living.

Less than a year ago, December 2nd 2013, Icelandic Police forces killed a man. It was the first time. This is probably what the politically appointed PR manager of the Police alluded to when he joked, last week, that “until now the Police has been free to shoot people in Reykjavík, but when they’re supposed to get the same license in rural areas, everyone goes nuts.” The Police investigated the incident and came to the conclusion that everything was according to protocol. Most people don’t argue with that.

At the above-mentioned Church conference, Bishop Agnes M. Sigurðardóttir said that while it is regrettable to live in a world where we need one machine gun per every thousand inhabitants she does trust the police to use them wisely.

From the Police Instagram account

Latest update: the 250 MP5s were not the first machine guns bought from Norway. Apparently, in 2013, the Norwegian Army donated fifty unspecified machine guns to the Icelandic Coast Guard, as well as ten MG3s. Whereas Icelandic officials have been reluctant to provide any information, RÚV retrieved these news from Norway. Best guess: they must be preparing for another Cod War, because no way they would ever aim those things at, say, participants in political demonstrations. No way.

Forecast: This is not over.

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