The unfathomable tragedies that overtook New York, Washington, America on Tuesday September 11th, 2001 changed the world.
Ten years ago.
I was grateful that none of our nearest and dearest disappeared in the tragedy in New York and still feel a profound sympathy for all neighbors, New Yorkers, touched by the event.
In one horrible morning our sense of safety, security and invulnerability crumbled along with the World Trade Center towers and a section of Pentagon.
Everyone with a Swedish or foreign background in America are forever as moved by the bravery and valor with which New Yorkers and all America responded to the horrible events. All of us of Swedish descent are also proud of the message to America from official Sweden and the spontaneous support from citizens and Swedish-American corporations alike. The message from the then Prime Minister Göran Persson and official Sweden was crystal clear: ‘We stand together!’
For the first time in modern history, according to many experts, Sweden diverted from its traditional neutrality policy, claiming support for the efforts by America and its allies against terrorism. A significant milestone in Swedish–US, -world relations, and reason to be proud for all of us of Swedish descent or Swedish upbringing.
Many a Swedish and Swedish-American individual or corporation gave generously, of funds or equipment, or specific help in matters of importance to the rescue efforts.
Meeting with the Swedish Prime Minister, at the time just after the events, was quite an honor. And a special privilege at the time – the profile interview with Sweden’s Göran Persson made us re-arrange a lot in our schedule.
Prime Minister Göran Persson immediately condemned the attack
A shaken Persson said that, “without knowing the full implications we do know that what we have here is the most devastating attack in the free world ever. And thus an issue for all of the democracies in the world.” He continued to stress that all countries in the free world must at this point form a united front against all acts of terrorism. “When I saw the first footage on the news I just could not believe what I saw, this is not the kind of thing that happens in real life.”
Ulf Mårtensson, publisher & editor
My full feature on then Prime Minister Göran Persson follows here:
On History and Heroes
A Conversation with Göran Persson in September, 2001
Swedish Prime Minister Göran Persson, recipient of the 2001 Raoul Wallenberg Award for his many humanitarian accomplishments, speaks out in an exclusive interview to Nordic Reach Publisher and Editor Ulf Mårtensson.
“America does not stand alone. These people are murderers. It is obvious that the terrorists are not interested in a dialogue...they lack political motives. All democracies stand side by side in the fight against terrorism. The United Nations resolution unites all democracies. The international open society is powerful and America has a right to use military force in response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks—not just a right; it is also its responsibility to the rest of the free world.”
The words are those of Sweden’s Prime Minister Göran Persson, spoken when we met just under a month after the terrorist attacks that toppled the World Trade Center in New York and hit the Pentagon in Washington. In their wake, Sweden moved firmly toward increased cooperation with the West in general and the U.S. in particular—a shift that put the Prime Minister in the spotlight yet again.
Persson recalled the afternoon (Swedish time) of September 11 and when he first heard about the attacks:
“I remember coming from a meeting with the Swedish foreign policy committee, having just said goodbye to the King, when one of my assistants urgently told me a plane had crashed into one of the World Trade Center towers in New York,” he said. “I was listening to the car radio on my way back to Rosenbad [Swedish government headquarters] when the second plane hit. ‘This cannot be true, it is not happening,’ I thought. Then, ‘wait a second—I’ve seen this before, haven’t I?’ Those were the first thoughts that flashed through my mind. That’s how far the recent wave of catastrophic action movies has brought us.”
It didn’t take long, however, to understand that it was actually happening. “I immediately realized the dire consequences for the whole world, the seriousness of this, and my next thought was, of course, what will happen in Sweden?”
Within hours of hearing of the event, Persson went on national television on the evening’s main news program to address the people of Sweden. He made two more TV appearances that night, appeared on-air in a live radio interview and held a press conference at 9:30 PM Swedish time.
“Here was a full-fledged attack on not just one country, but on the entire free world, with repercussions of unimaginable scope,” he said. “I felt distress, anger and fear; I thought of personal connections to anyone in the immediate area and I started realizing the need to act rationally, to communicate with the Swedish people. I felt sadness and anger. I was as shocked as everyone else but, of course, I had to balance my feelings to give my fellow Swedes a correct picture of the events and of the situation. A remarkable, strange situation.”
Upon reflection, Persson said, he realized that it could happen just as easily in Sweden.“These people knew what they were doing and it was something they planned for a long time. The U.S. is a free, open society totally without defense mechanisms for this kind of act. It could happen here as well. In any open society. We are dealing with a group of criminals with immense resources. Their actions in Washington, D.C., and New York hurt America first and foremost, but are also a blow to all open societies.”
A rise to popularity
Persson’s increased visibility as a result of Sweden’s support for the U.S. coincides with a rise in popularity among his constituents.
His direct way of communicating and open personality made him popular with the Clinton Administration during his term as Finance Minister under Prime Minister Ingvar Carlsson from 1994 to 1996. But he remained somewhat controversial in Sweden.
At first Persson, who denied being a serious candidate for the job of Prime Minister to begin with, was considered a “compromise” for the Social Democratic party. As Finance Minister, Persson had been confronted with an economy in shambles and an international financial community that looked upon Sweden with a great deal of skepticism after the 1991 depreciation of the krona. Followers of the more conservative parties in Sweden claim the way he handled the situation brought “common sense” to Social Democratic politics. Meanwhile, adversaries within his own party may have sometimes considered him a traitor to the “cause.”
More pragmatic than dogmatic, Persson’s message to the delegates at the Social Democratic party convention in March 1996, when he was elected, was clear: “We walk a tightrope between prioritizing the battle against unemployment without simultaneously endangering the progress we have made in putting our public finances in order.”
In addition, despite his successful term as finance minister, many observers considered him “too small for his new coat,” so to speak, his political experience more on the local than the national level.
But in fact, Persson first became a member of the Swedish Parliament at age 30. But after five years, he chose to withdraw to local politics in a county south of Stockholm to be able to “actually see the decisions through” and be closer to the results of his political work. He returned to Stockholm again as a member of parliament in 1991.
In a sense, his reappearance on the national scene resembled that of another popular Swedish leader, Tage Erlander, who was Sweden’s prime minister from 1946 to 1969 and shepherded Sweden through the ’50s and ’60s. Erlander was just 45 years old when elected and much younger than many more senior in the party. On his low popularity and people’s low expectations of him, he once commented, “Well, it couldn’t be any worse, so from here on it can only go in one direction.”
Other observers attribute Persson’s present rise to popularity to the way he dealt with Sweden’s recent presidency of the EU. He has a folksy profile combined with an ability to move in the highest echelons of global politics without being out of place. He is also candid and straightforward in how he communicates his message to the citizens of Sweden and the world.
Persson utilizes all the latest technology to get the job done. The latest Ericsson phone with MTS and WAP technology doesn’t leave his pocket; prior to our meeting, he was surfing the Swedish news agency.
“We live at a dangerous time right now. What happened in America will have dire consequences,” Persson said. “But overall, we also live at an amazing time in the history of mankind. This generation of us around fifty has taken the longest journey of any prior generations. We have known people who actually believed in elves, and from that [we’ve evolved to] the Internet, to wirelessly, effortlessly having everything and anything within our grasp. It’s a cultural and historical experience of an unprecedented kind. In this day and age, it is also extremely important to find key issues, values and beliefs to hang on to.”
A right to defend itself
Since its open support for the allied intervention in Kosovo in 1999, Sweden has belonged to a select group of western nations informed almost on par with member countries of NATO.
Long noted for its policy of neutrality in war and non-alignment in peacetime, both Persson and Swedish Foreign Minister Anna Lindh have been extremely clear in voicing Swedish support of the U.S. in its measures to fight terrorism. And for once, almost all of the country’s political leaders have expressed support for the Anglo-American strikes on targets in Afghanistan.
Two days after the September attacks, NATO invoked Article V of the North Atlantic Charter, declaring the terrorist strike on New York and Washington an attack on the entire alliance. Sweden was quick to respond.
“We would like to continue to have close cooperation with NATO, although we don’t want to be a member,” Lindh said in a news conference. “But let me once again state that we are not neutral when it comes to terrorists.”
Persson has openly defended the right of the U.S. to defend itself. In an interview given shortly after the U.S. retaliation began, the Prime Minister said in a televised interview, “I would be extremely afraid if there were a situation in which the free world failed to act to stop terrorism.”
He pointed out that “this is a completely new situation—an organization, not a country but with resources on par with any country, something not foreseen when UN’s articles 45 or 46 were originally written. And yet the UN is clear on this: The attack on America is an act of war. Important now is that the retaliation must be proportional, the amount of innocent lives lost must be kept at a minimum, and the US must let the UN know what measures are taken.”
In late October, Persson said, “a ceasefire in Afghanistan would prolong the war…an immediate bomb stop would send a signal to the Taliban and bin Laden to re-group, start rebuilding and train for new terrorist attacks.”
“There is nothing constructive, no forgiving aspects of the deeds of September 11,” Persson continued. “They are simply murderers and should be punished for their actions. We must not come to a situation where these actions are given any kind of higher aim, such as decreasing the gaps between rich and poor, aims they surely do not have. World poverty or perceived U.S. aggressions…there is no connection, this is pure terrorism, a mish-mash of fundamentalism with no real political ideology. These people are not representatives of the poor; they are filled with hate and strange beliefs. There is nothing to forgive in their acts; they have committed murder.”
His support is not without political implications in Sweden, where critical voices can be heard among the environmentalist party, the [former] communist party and even a few of his fellow Social Democrats.
“I have a hard time understanding those that say we should not fight back,” Persson responded. “To do so provokes further violence, they say. This may be true, but to let something of this magnitude pass—one of the worst crimes in modern times—to not do anything might mean they continue. The responsibility of no response is not something we can carry. The UN has said the U.S. can go ahead and do it; the UN itself could hardly do anything.”
How far is Sweden willing to go?
Not everything in Sweden has changed, of course. In the event of a request for military assistance, Sweden would still decline, Persson said. “But we support the undertakings in all other areas: politically, in intelligence gathering efforts and with humanitarian aid.”
There have been speculations as to how Sweden would react in the unlikely event of a terrorist being arrested in Sweden. Foreign Minister Lindh has said that if the UN requested it, any such terrorists would be extradited. Yet the Prime Minister has noted that the Swedish constitution is very clear: Sweden does not allow for capital punishment. The country’s judicial system cannot extradite prisoners to areas where such punishment prevails.
When asked about this paradox, Persson responded: “In general, I think there is too much speculation, what if, and how would we react, etc. Let us be real: This is not a game. People are risking their lives to find those guilty, this is a serious situation, and speculation feels highly out of place. In the unlikely event of our finding ourselves in a situation with one of the terrorists caught on Swedish soil, I feel certain we will solve this properly if and when it appears.”
“It is my personal hope,” Persson continued, “that Bin Laden is prosecuted in the U.S., where he should answer for his acts and where the evidence can be presented in a civilized way. The U.S. justice system will decide on the proper punishment. This is the principle of the lawful state. It is the open society we defend, a society built upon law and order.”
A message of tolerance
Göran Persson doesn’t consider himself a hero. “Raoul Wallenberg is a hero,” he said. “A person who did things that can serve as an example to the rest of us, not just one good deed but something that may truly become an inspiration and an icon for good.”
However, Persson’s integrity and untiring work to increase tolerance in the world did lead to his receiving the Raoul Wallenberg 2001 Award.
In 2000, he started a world conference to combat intolerance–The Stockholm International Forum on the Holocaust. “Living in poverty, feeling powerless and excluded makes people look for scapegoats,” Persson stated at the second conference, The Stockholm International Forum Combating Intolerance, held in January 2001. “We must be prepared to confront the despair because if we don’t, other forces will.”
The conference is not about tolerance in the more narrow Swedish meaning of the word, Persson stressed, all discrimination due to race, religion, language or sexual inclination has been used to oppress or condemn.
“We think we are able to deal with the every day expressions of this kind of intolerance,” Persson said. “We go about our life, in work places and in locker rooms, and words sneak into our language that downgrade different groups [such as, in Swedish djävla svartskalle, förbannade bög, djävla muslimer]. They sneak in, unobtrusive, unless we pay attention. We’re being casual about it, but one day it becomes second nature and we push the limits a bit further, and on another day someone appears who wants to take advantage of those movements. The process can as easily happen in a so-called developed society as in a developing one. We must be made aware of the process and pay more attention.”
Tell Ye Your Children
In another sign of widespread intolerance, neo-nazism is on the rise in Europe, with hate groups using unemployment and poverty to promote a fear of foreigners and immigrants. In 1997, reports from Swedish schools showed a staggering lack of knowledge of the Holocaust and even a widespread doubt that it happened. The Prime Minister spoke in parliament about the need to increase information on the issue and created what would evolve to an international movement called the Living History Project and the ongoing tolerance conference.
“I was shocked by the apparent ignorance among Swedish youth,” Persson said. “All my life I have felt very strongly, ever since I began to read, as a matter of fact, about the horrendous acts during WWII. I have also felt connected to the state of Israel and the peace process in the Middle East. To see the ignorance among Swedish youth when this is something I always thought the schools took care of, I became concerned and afraid—if we can forget, it could happen again.”
“What I personally find so shocking about the Holocaust,” Persson added, “was that these were ordinary people committing the atrocities, the crimes of the time. They were law-abiding ‘good’ citizens with a family. After a day of murder they went home, had dinner and read to their children. How could they bear it, how could they?”
Persson took up the issue in the Swedish Parliament, where he received unanimous support. Work began to chronicle the events of the Holocaust. A small team of capable people created a book called Tell Ye Your Children, which was offered exclusively from the state; the Prime Minister sent a letter to each Swedish household inviting them to order the book. The idea was to force people to actively ask for the information rather than just sending it out as yet another piece of mail. Over one million households did request the book, which has become the most widely read book, aside from the Bible, in Sweden. Tell Ye Your Children has also been translated into many languages, including Russian, Arabic, German, English and Estonian.
“I think one of the reasons the book was so successful is that it is not just the holocaust. Many grown-ups, parents have had a hard time to talk about and convey values to the younger generations. With the book as a starting point, they could talk about how we all should behave to each other. What is important, central in a relationship between human beings, how are you responsible to me, I to you? I think that, to receive support for this kind of conversation was extremely important.”
The administration was astounded by the response to the book. The question soon emerged: If this is happening in Sweden, are there other countries with the same thirst for more information? Persson wrote to President Clinton in the U.S. and Prime Minister Blair in England to invite them to an international task force to fight intolerance. They accepted and the first week of January 2000 saw 30 heads of state gather for the Stockholm International Forum on the Holocaust. One of the participating leaders noted that the
first major international conference of the new millennium was not about money, not about politics. It was instead about values and people’s relations.
Reflecting on that experience should give us hope in today’s troubling times.
“To me, the most moving experiences were the encounters with those that should have died then,” Persson said. “They still live among us, against all odds. Thousands of Holocaust victims, survivors live in Sweden to this day. One of the survivors felt that the conference helped her for the first time to distance herself from what happened then, she felt somehow compensated... The book, the conference, it all became so much bigger than I had expected. The timing was right, the message, and we all felt truly involved.”
Ulf Barslund Mårtensson October 2001
Photography: Bo Zaunders