Part II of CAM Correspondent Ron Ridenour’s Perspective on Near-Pristine Island-Nation (Part 1 here)
Little Crime, Murder, Violence—But They Are Increasing
We can learn from the Icelandic people’s sense of assuming political responsibility, their tightknit togetherness—98% know people they can rely on—and from their culture, which fosters more authors per capita than any country in the world.
I am concerned, however, that a growing fast life sub-culture—especially in the ever-growing Capital Region where 60% of the 345,000 population live on just 1% of the land—could lead this peaceful and intelligent people to deteriorate into ruinous consumerism as happens to most people in the world when they have the chance.
Tourism has produced drug smuggling, rampant pornography, escalating prostitution that did not exist before, and gouging by some businessmen and politicians. Rampant growth in tourism—from 200,000 in 1995 to two million in 2019, exceeding six times the population—too many cars, and the partial return of the United States to Keflavik Naval Base are all signs of decaying humanistic values.
Prostitution is a growing industry in Reykjavík, largely due to growing tourism. This growing industry is primarily operated online, through websites that advertise escort services or through social media, including Facebook. Most of the women are foreign, and police suspects they are victims of international prostitution rings which ship them from one country to the next, stopping only for a very brief time in each city.
Prostitution is not illegal, but buying the services of a prostitute or profiting from prostitution is. In other words: Prostitutes are treated as victims of human trafficking and are not punished by law, while pimps and johns are arrested. However, no arrests have been made for several years.
“At least three motorcycle gangs are trying to establish themselves in Iceland, Hells Angels, Outlaws and Bad Breed. In previous years, the Icelandic police had been successful in hindering motorcycle gangs in gaining significant foothold in Iceland, but…there are now definite signs that they are actively working to expand their presence in Iceland. Many members of the motorcycle gangs in Iceland have ties to the illegal drug trade, money laundering, and are known to be armed.” Organized Crime and Prostitution on the rise in Iceland – Iceland Monitor (mbl.is)
Is this peaceful island nation becoming something uncertain, something cosmopolitan or will the majority of the people, conscious of the dangers of greedy capitalism, recall the humane possibilities of creating a cooperative socialist economy, and an end to the ever-expanding warmongering NATO?
Shots were fired at a politician’s property, on January 21, 2021, for the first time in Icelandic folks’ memory. Bullets from a .22 pistol were fired into Reykjavik Mayor Dagur B Eggertsson’s car and his office. He was not present in either occasion.
Eggertsson, who has been mayor since 2014, is a member of the Social Democratic Alliance. Speculation circulated that the mayor had been hoarding three parking places in a city overloaded with personal cars. It turned out that he did not control those three spaces.
Hallur Gunnar Erlingsson was arrested and remanded into custody. He is a former police officer and is considered dangerous. In 2003, he was sentenced to 18 months in prison for sexually assaulting three young girls.
Erlingsson completed that sentence in 2005. In 2009, he sought to “restore his honor,” wherein one’s legal reputation, but not their criminal record, is effectively cleansed by having several people attest that the person has changed his ways for the better. Erlingsson’s request was granted. Later that year, however, he seriously harassed Centre Party vice councilperson Baldur Borgþórsson.
While crime rates are low, and shootings most unusual, just four weeks after the Erlingsson shooting, an Albanian immigrant was shot several times in front of his home, and died of multiple wounds. This was the first shooting death in Iceland since 2007. Armando Bequirai, 32, had owned a physical security company.
A month later, police arrested an Albanian national, Angjelin Sterkej, who confessed. Police had found his .22 caliber pistol, from which he had fired nine shots.
“The police investigation was extensive, and suspicion soon arose that the murder was part of a settlement between criminal groups, domestic as well as international.” Fourteen people were detained during the investigation and, at one point, nine were in custody at the same time.
On September 24, Sterkej was found guilty after confessing to the murder. He was sentenced to 16 years’ imprisonment, and ordered to pay damages to Sterkej’s widow. Three alleged accomplices were acquitted.
This execution-style murder with gangster overtones was unheard of in Iceland, and is judged “a serious development and a new reality in Icelandic society.” Fatal Shooting Feared to Suggest New Reality – Iceland Monitor (mbl.is)
Still, very few crimes involve firearms. Iceland has traditionally had a homicide rate of less than one per year for the last several decades. Its current rate is 0.5 per 100,000 people. In 2020, the U.S. rate was 7.8 homicides per 100,000 people.
Iceland has experienced 37 homicides in the last two decades—the lowest murder rate in Europe.
Four homicides in 2017 and four again in 2020 were exceptional. One murder, on January 13, 2017, shocked the nation, causing local AP correspondent, Egill Bjarnason, to state:
“I think many people feel overwhelmed by how fast the country is changing, from a small island nation to something more cosmopolitan.” “Birna’s death somehow encapsulated people’s unease about this new era.”
Birna Brjánsdóttir, 20, was walking home from a Reykjavík pub around five in the morning. She was drunk. A young Greenland fisher in port from a fishing vessel picked her up in a rental car. After an intensive search, Thomas Olsen was arrested and charged with her murder by drowning. A three-judge court found Olsen guilty and sentenced him to 19 years in prison.
Besides murders, mostly committed by young Icelanders killing each other, women are subject to some rapes. Reported rapes in 2015 numbered 178 (54 per 100,000), triple that of 2004 when the rate was 17.4 per 100,000 population. Tourism, porn media, and immigration are the main causes for this increase.
Five percent of all European women reported in 2014 having been raped since the age of 15. Ten percent reported having experienced sexual violence since the age of 15. In Iceland, even with the recent increase, just one-tenth of one percent have experienced such violence. In the U.S. one in five women (19.3%) reported having been raped during their lifetime. , from 30 to 60 cases, in 2019.
Icelanders are generally not a violent people. In fact, they are deemed the most peaceful country in the world for 13 years running. Handguns in the country are banned.
Even Icelandic police are very seldom violent. Police do not usually carry lethal weapons. The prime minister does not normally have bodyguards.
No police shooting deaths have occurred since.
Regarding the 2013 shooting death, police said that they were called to a suburban Reykjavik apartment when a 59-year-old man fired a shotgun from his flat. Two unarmed police officers tried to enter the gunman’s apartment after neighbors reported that he was making threats.
The police were shot at but not injured. Other police officers came armed. Witnesses said the police tried to subdue the man by throwing a smoke bomb into the apartment through a broken window. Two police officers were hit by shotgun fire, but not seriously wounded. They fired at the man, killing him.
Some of the reasons why there is so little crime, even today, has to do with:
- Small country where people know one another, including politicians and capitalists.
- Tight gun control. Everyone desiring to buy a firearm must be approved and registered by a state agency. Semi-automatic rifles are banned as are pistols (generally). There must be a special reason to own a pistol and it can take three-four years before permission is granted. A national database registers and tracks all firearms. Nevertheless, one in three persons owns one or more firearms, which are used for hunting wild animals and for “sports.”
- Although Iceland joined NATO, it refuses to send its people to war, which would likely cause many returning soldiers to have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which would likely lead to increases in shooting suicides and murders, drug addiction and criminal activities.
Crime and Punishment
Iceland had 33 persons incarcerated per 100,000 population in 2021. It has fewer prisoners than all but 10 other countries, some with lower populations. This year, the incarceration rate in the United States was 698 per 100,000 population, the highest in the world.
The “Greatest Country in the World” imprisons approximately 25% (one of every four) of the world’s prisoners (2.3 million incarcerated, and an additional 4.4 million on probation or parole) despite it being just four percent (one in 25) of the planet’s population.
Iceland abolished capital punishment in 1928, with the last execution occurring in 1830. In 2020, the United States executed 17 people: ten whites, five blacks, one Hispanic, and one “undetermined.” The U.S. has 7,147 prisons and jails.
In Iceland, after serving one-third of their sentence, most inmates are allowed to visit families one day a month. Most prisoners earn money working by making license plates, games, and cement blocks. Others receive education. Prisoners buy their own groceries with their wages and make their own food. They can bring radios, TVs, computers, printers, speakers, and books to their rooms. Generally, prisoners are expected to take care of themselves, and violent conflicts inside prisons are extremely rare.
In the U.S., “The number of incarcerated people who have a mental illness is growing across the country, raising critical questions about using prisons instead of hospitals to manage serious mental health problems. More than half of all Americans in prison or jail have a mental illness. Prison officials often fail to provide appropriate treatment for people whose behavior is difficult to manage, instead resorting to physical force and solitary confinement, which can aggravate mental health problems.”
In 2020, “the Council of Europe’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT) found that no ill-treatment was reported in Icelandic prisons, police or psychiatric establishments visited and that the material conditions were good or even very good.”
CPT did criticize the prison system for not adequately controlling the intake of drugs and alcohol, and not providing adequate psychological care for prisoners with mental problems, especially at Litla-Hraun, the only high-security prison. It is here where the FBI snitch against Julian Assange, Sigurdur Thordarson, has been interned since September 24 under a “rarely invoked” law that allows police to detain someone considered to be in the middle of a crime spree.
Thordarson had been convicted of several crimes of pedophilia, embezzlement, including $50,000 from WikiLeaks when he worked as a volunteer. Nevertheless, the FBI paid him $5,000 to testify against Julian Assange in the extradition case under way in London. Thordarson’s testimony was a crucial part of the U.S. case against Assange. Thordarson has since recanted, admitting to fabricating testimony that Assange had asked him to hack a government computer.
“Thordarson admitted in an earlier interview with Stundin in June that he lied to the FBI about Assange directly ordering hacking operations—a key element of the U.S. computer charge against the WikiLeaks founder. Thordarson was granted immunity by the FBI against prosecution in exchange for becoming an FBI informant in a sting against WikiLeaks in 2010,” wrote Joe Lauria.
On December 10, 2021, the British aristocratic “High Court” granted the U.S. its appeal and ordered a lower court to extradite our messenger, Julian Assange, to U.S. torture prison chambers. It did not even consider the admitted lies of the U.S.’s snitch. Not to mention, the knowledge that the CIA planned to kidnap and murder Julian when he was in the Ecuadorian embassy in London.
“Let us look at ourselves, if we have the courage, to see what is happening to us,” wrote Jean-Paul Sartre.
The British lower court magistrate had bowed her head to the CIA as if it were her King: “In her ruling in January against extraditing the imprisoned WikiLeaks publisher, Magistrate Vanessa Baraitser expressed a high degree of understanding for the CIA wanting to rub out Assange,” Lauria wrote.
Iceland is known for its moon-like volcanic nature, its relatively clean fresh air and waters, for its sagas (Íslendingasögur), and for pony-sized horses.
Like its people, the Icelandic pony is “a friendly, patient and strong animal.” Its origin stems from Norwegian slave-owning/trading Vikings in the 9th century.
Later settlers brought ponies and horses from the Faroe Islands, Ireland and Mongolia. The Althing Parliament prohibited the importation of more horses in 982, which is still in effect, making its pony a purebred since then. Nor are Iceland’s ponies allowed to be sold abroad.
Sagas are family prose narratives based on historical events, which mostly took place in Iceland in the ninth to eleventh centuries. Icelandic ponies play a role in some of them. The Saga Age is considered the best specimen of the island’s literature. They were written in the 12-14th centuries in Old Icelandic, a Western dialect of Old Norse. Icelanders still speak their original language while the other Scandinavian countries have developed their own languages.
According to the saga Landáma, the Norwegian Viking captain, Ingólfr Arnarson, brought the first Irish slaves, in 874, to Iceland where Reykjavik was eventually built.
The saga was written two or three centuries after Arnarson, his wife Hallveig Fróðadóttir, and his step-brother Hjörleifr Hróömarsson arrived. Within a short time, a few Irish slaves rebelled, killing their slave-owner Hróömarsson, and fleeing to the nearby islands of Vestmannaeyjar. Arnarson chased and killed them. The islands were named Vestmannaeyjar, because Norse men used this term Vestmann (West Man) for Irishmen. Ingólfr Arnarson – Wikipedia
Today, sixty percent of the total population of 330,000 Icelanders are of Norse descent [also Danish]. Thirty-four percent are of Celtic descent. It is believed Scottish monks arrived in Iceland prior to the settlement of the Vikings.
Contemporary “Icelanders are extremely proud of their heritage” regardless of their knowledge that
“Vikings did raid towns and villages on their journeys across the seas famously taking anything they wanted. Thereby not only increasing their wealth but also kidnapping workers, and even future wives.”
Proud yes, yet admirers of murderous Vikings, Icelanders have other contradictions. Half of them still believe in elves, though they accept a state church, albeit not a theocracy. While all religions (and paganism) are accepted, the Lutheran Church is the State Church, as it is in other Scandinavian countries and Germany where it began.
Denmark introduced Lutheranism to Iceland, in 1536. German fishermen-traders established the first Lutheran Church in Iceland two years later. Soon, the Lutheran Church became the national church in the rest of Scandinavia.
According to Article 62 of the Icelandic Constitution—decreed on June 17, 1944—the Evangelical Lutheran Church “shall be the State Church in Iceland and, as such, it shall be supported and protected by the State,” which means that all taxpayers must pay despite the fact that only 65% are members, a decline from 85% in 2005. There are 47 recognized religions in Iceland. About 10% declare themselves atheists and 5% practice Ásatrú, a pagan Norse religion. Icelanders are required to register their religion with the state. They must pay “parish fees” of about $100 annually. The state deducts this sum from the unaffiliated into the national treasury. A September 2015 poll showed that 55% want an end to the forced payment.
In modern times, Icelandic authors have written marvelous novels, detective stories and poetry. Many ordinary citizens write their own poetry. In fact, 10% have published at least one book. More books are published and sold per person in Iceland than anywhere else, and there are more bookstores per capita. Most people actually read books.
Icelandic culture is so rich, because nearly everyone feels connected to other people and to nature. Icelanders appreciate theater, symphonies, even opera. There are many art galleries, professional theaters, museums, and cinemas. Filmmakers are world class.
When I moved to Denmark, I began reading books written by Scandinavians. My first and best Icelandic author was Halldór Laxness. He wrote novels, short stories and poetry. Laxness drew from Bertolt Brecht, Upton Sinclair, Sinclair Lewis and Ernest Hemingway. He even translated Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms.
Laxness is best known for Salka Valka, a sociological novel depicting a girl of nature who fights for justice, for union rights and livable working conditions. This book began a series of social-critical novels in which socialism is the preferred economic order. Laxness won the Lenin Peace Prize in 1953, which did not prevent the Swedish-based institution from granting him the Nobel Prize for Literature two years later. That he was a communist did not hurt his national reputation.
I bring my reading into this writing, in order to illustrate how cultured Icelanders are, which leads me to an anecdote about one of Icelanders’ greatest skills, chess. This intelligent game is not only for professional players, as most Icelanders are good at it. In fact, Iceland has more rated grandmasters per capita than any other nationality. And, of course, Iceland was chosen for the famous 1972 world championship played at Reykjavik between Soviet Boris Spassky and American Bobby Fischer.
I worked on a fishing boat and on the docks of the small island of Heimaey, part of Vestmannaeyjar, in the summer of 1981. I had become familiar with the island, because of the 1973 eruption of Eldfell volcano, which destroyed one-fifth of its buildings. The tenacious islanders did not falter in putting out the fires by pumping ocean water that diverted the scorching hot lava back to the sea, which actually improved the harbor. Much of the lava was converted into heat energy for all their homes. The 13-square kilometer island then housed 5,000 residents (now 4,500). It has always been a major fishing village.
When there was a break in our work, waiting for the nets to catch fish, several men and teenage fishers took out chessboards. I play a bit and watched amazed. Most of these boys and men had minimal education, ten grades, yet all were excellent players. When I asked if I might try my hand, there was a hush. I learned from my native “guide”—who had found me work and a free place—that they were shy and embarrassed. They didn’t want me to feel left out or ignored. On the other hand, they didn’t want me to play because, without knowing how good I might be, they surmised that I wouldn’t last but a couple of minutes. I understood their reasoning completely.
Conclusion: Small Societies Can Be More Peaceful and Egalitarian Than Large Ones
“Small is beautiful,” some readers might characterize my ideas here, perhaps referring to economist E.F. Schumacher. I have not read his book, nor am I an economist. Nevertheless, his basic ideas appeal to me—that capitalism cannot solve our major problems, and that socialism has a better chance of becoming a “more democratic and dignified system of industrial administration, a more humane employment of machinery, and a more intelligent utilization of the fruits of human ingenuity and effort. If they can do this, they have the future in their hands. If they cannot, they have nothing to offer that is worthy of the sweat of free-born men.”
I prefer that the working classes rise up and smash capitalism, and create socialist-democratic societies such as many thought was a good idea in the late 1800s and early 1900s, early 1930s, and 1960s-70s. From the present perspective, such a world seems impossible in any fore-seeable future.
Maybe a gradual increase in true social democracy—not that of Bernie Sanders, who is nothing more than a spokesperson for “moderate” capitalism—while expanding class consciousness and struggles for peace could set the stage for a relatively peaceful transition to socialism.
I realize that the capitalist class and all its military/police might well do all in their power to prevent such a transition, but they have also done the same when we have attempted armed revolutions. Until now, they have won by hook and by crook. They outgunned the Soviet Union and forced it to capitulate. They forced China, Vietnam and Cuba to open up their economies. None of the socialist revolutions was able, or wished, to turn over power to the working class as promised.
Maybe it was not possible because of the constant subversion and violence that the United States of America Racist Military Empire (US-ARME), and its footmen NATO/EU/Commonwealth/Israel, conduct against every attempt to create such a society through peaceful or armed means. I watched this take place in Cuba during my years there (1987-96), and have seen first-hand what they are doing to Venezuela and Nicaragua, and attempted in Bolivia.
I believe that Iceland, with its strong tradition of more direct democracy than any state of which I am aware, has a better chance of putting socialism back on the table in the not so distant future. If they would do so, this could encourage others.
When Jean-Jacques Rousseau used the term democracy, he referred to a direct democracy rather than a representative or winner-take-all “democracy.” Rousseau argued that only small city-states are the form of society in which freedom and peaceful relations can possibly flourish.
“In his most influential work of political philosophy, The Social Contract (1762), Rousseau asserts that democracy is incompatible with representative institutions…‘[T]he moment a people allows itself to be represented, it is no longer free: it no longer exists.’” Democracy – Rousseau | Britannica
Rousseau, however, was pessimistic about the long-run viability of any form of government where the society has too many human beings. He did not set any number that might be “too many.”
Though, he hints “that democratic governments may be viable if joined together in confederations.”
Anthropologists have concluded that, when Homo Sapiens lived in small groups (20 to 100), it was possible to live with one another in relative peace and with relative democratic decision-making. Each person had his/her tasks, and no person could occupy a leading position without authentic skill and without consent of the group.
In my opinion, we Homo Sapiens are likely doomed to murder one another individually and in massive scale, as we also destroy much of the planet with our waste.
Why have I become so misanthropic of late?
1. Most people support, voluntarily or otherwise, constructing huge societies dominated by a few persons (an economic class) bent on obtaining endless wealth by any means deemed “necessary.”
2. Revolutions aimed at creating socialism and peace have been outgunned by overpoweringly military-based societies, namely the U.S.-ARME with 4,000 military bases in its 50 states, 800 bases in 70 countries and with hundreds of thousands of voluntary warriors based in 150 countries.
3. Most people insist on bearing as many children as they want or think they need.
The planet is already over-populated and cannot sustain the human race as it is.
In my opinion, parents in most countries should bear only one child (at most two) for some time to come. China tried this for some years with mixed effects. This is a sane approach. Nevertheless, most social scientists and Marxist readers might deride my view that we bear too many children. I remind readers that Karl Marx died almost 139 years ago and much has changed since he disputed Thomas Malthus’s conclusions in An Essay on the Principles of Population.
In 1800, the world population was one billion; today, it is eight times that. Not so many children are needed today to become laborers on family farms or soldiers for that matter, given that bombs and drones are more “useful” than foot soldiers. Ego plays too much of a role in having children.
I conclude with some words of wisdom—first from what Vigdis Finnbogadóttir told me, followed by Evo Morales’s vision.
“Think what could be done if the money that went into militarism went into, say, cultivating the Sahara. I don’t know if it’s possible, but today everything seems possible because of science.
“If you believe in a thing strongly enough, it may be possible to reconcile the different approaches to economic and political social systems. The human brain is so developed now that the personal ambition of a relatively few people shouldn’t be strong. But how do we stop them? If I knew, I would have the key to everything.”
Bolivia’s former President Evo Morales has some answers for Vigdis in his “Ten Commandments: Live Well, Not Live Better.”
“Sisters and brothers, [in] the tenth point, we propose to Live Well, not live better at the expense of another—a Live Well based on the lifestyle of our peoples, the riches of our communities, fertile lands, water and clean air. Socialism is talked about a lot, but we need to improve this socialism, improve the proposals for socialism in the XXI century, building a communitarian socialism, or simply Live Well, in harmony with Mother Earth, respecting the shared life ways of the community.”
“The American criminal justice system holds almost 2.3 million people in 1,833 state prisons, 110 federal prisons, 1,772 juvenile correctional facilities, 3,134 local jails, 218 immigration detention facilities, and 80 Indian Country jails as well as in military prisons, civil commitment centers, state psychiatric hospitals, and prisons in the U.S. territories.”
Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2020 | Prison Policy Initiative and Census of State and Federal Adult Correctional Facilities, 2012 (umich.edu) ↑
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About the Author
Ron Ridenour is a U.S.-born author and journalist, anti-war and civil rights activist since 1961. After joining the U.S. Air Force at 17, he saw the inner workings of U.S. imperialism first hand and resigned. In the 1980s and 1990’s he worked with the Nicaraguan government and on Cuban national media.
He now lives in Denmark and, in addition to writing a dozen books, has served as a special correspondent and freelance investigative journalist for many publications in the U.S. and several Latin American and European countries—among them: The Morning Star, New Statesman, The Guardian (U.S. and England), Playboy, Liberation News Service, Pacific News Service, Coast Magazine, Qui, Skeptic, Seven Days, and Pacifica Radio.
CAM co-founder Philip Agee wrote commentaries to two of his dozen books: Yankee Sandinistas: Interviews with North Americans Living and Working in the New Nicaragua, and Backfire: CIA’s Biggest Burn. See also: The Russian Peace Threat: Pentagon on Alert and Winding Brook Stories at Amazon and Lulu. Other work can be found at ronridenour.com.
Ron can be reached at email@example.com.