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Comment: After the terror, Copenhagen is a different city

Copenhagen is not the safe city we thought it was, but it is how we respond to the fear that will define us, writes Lena of the University Post

“Mum, don’t worry. Copenhagen is the safest city in the world”.

This is how I reassured my nerves-prone mother before boarding a flight from Sydney to Copenhagen two days ago. I still remember laughing at the idea that anything untoward could happen in the Danish capital.

I’ve lived in Copenhagen for two years, and ‘safe’, ‘neat’ and ‘ordered’ are the words I most use to describe the place. My friend and I used to laugh at Danish crime shows trying to depict the city as dramatic and dangerous.

“Yeah, right.” we’d joke.

“I guess they can’t make a TV show about cops doling out fines for cycling without lights.”

The place where things like this don’t happen

Unlike Sydney with its sprawling urban areas, traffic-ridden streets and occasional creepy lone figures on late-night public transport, Copenhagen feels like a (big) small town. You get a sense of tight-knit community, and I bet people aren’t too worried about locking their doors at night. Conscientious Danes turn in wallets that they find on the train, and I cycle freely in the middle of the night without fearing harassment.

Basically, it’s the last place you’d expect a shooting attack.

Like me, Copenhageners were horrified when they woke up this morning to learn the city had been subject to a second deadly shooting attack. Maybe some of them were out in the inner city late Saturday night.

That’s when a gunman shot a guard outside the Synagogue, hours after an attack on a free speech debate in an upmarket café which saw a civilian killed and several police wounded.

“Feeling safe?” a concerned Australian friend asked me on facebook, already abreast of the news while Copenhageners like me had slept.

When jet lag woke me up at the crack of dawn and I read that the city had been in lock-down, I didn’t feel safe at all.

Blame the sleep-deprivation, but I downright overreacted, wondering whether I’d have to cancel my plans and hide in my apartment all day. ‘I can’t believe I just flew to the safest city in the world.’ I thought, ‘only to feel so unsafe.’

It struck me that it’s the first time I’d ever felt this way in Copenhagen. If this had happened in another city, I’d have taken it differently. But this was Copenhagen. The safe city, the place where things like this just don’t happen.

Newfound insecurity

This disbelief is mirrored by the international residents around me.

“It is surreal that this is happening in my city” wrote one on Facebook. “I’ve never thought of Copenhagen as violent.” said another.

Copenhagen has a reputation for safety. It was recently selected as one of six safe cities in the world by the Wall Street Cheat Sheet. In an op-ed for the Huffington Post, one visitor to Copenhagen wrote that she felt she “was cocooned in a bubble of friendliness, sparkles, and hugs” in the city.

So what will the latest terror attack mean? It means Copenhagen, like many major cities in recent months, is not immune from deadly terror attacks. It means if a car-exhaust backfires like it did outside my window this morning, we might be a little on edge. It means that we aren’t taking our safety for granted anymore. It might mean we swallow hard when we cycle past the city-centre Synagogue, where a guard had been protecting a Bar Mitzvah party inside when he became the weekend’s second fatal victim. It might stop us from attending a free speech seminar.

Fear can make humans respond in curious ways. For the first time, we’re about to see how Copenhageners respond to this newfound feeling of insecurity.

‘I’ll ride with you’

I arrived in Sydney days after the Sydney Siege last December, where a Muslim man had held a city-centre café hostage. It inspired fear in the Australian city, hithero untouched by direct terror.

It also inspired a fear in many Muslim-Australians that they would be subject to a wave of Islamophobia. It wouldn’t be the first time. That day, Sydneysider Rachael Jacobs spotted a woman nervously unwrapping her hijab to hide her religious affiliation before stepping on the train. Rachael stopped her and said, “Put it back on. I’ll ride with you.”

Suddenly, Sydneysiders all over the city were invoking the hashtag #illridewithyou in a wave of support for anyone affected by religious harassment, offering to accompany them on public transport.

The hashtag became a symbol of a city determined to fight the intolerance which often accompanies fear and threat.

As Twitter, a breeding ground for thoughtless, off-the-cuff commentary, fires up with hateful statements, I can only hope this doesn’t reflect the attitudes of most Copenhageners.

Luckily, it doesn’t seem to have done so far.

I’m sitting in a café reflecting on the weekend. Copenhageners pour in, giggling, reading Sunday morning papers. They seem aware, like I, that despite the tragic events of last night, we’re still tremendously privileged to live in a city where these abhorrent attacks are a shock, a cause of disbelief, and a tragedy, but not a new norm.

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