‘We were all Americans, at least for a while’

The terror attacks of the September 11th, 2001, which claimed nearly 3,000 lives, rocked the United States, but also had a profound effect on Sweden. To mark the tenth anniversary of the attacks, The Local has talked to eight Swedes and Americans to ask how the attacks affected them.

'We were all Americans, at least for a while'

Olle Wästberg was stationed in New York as Sweden’s Consul General between 1999 and 2004. He has also served as head of the Swedish Institute and is currently the coordinator for the 100th anniversary of the birth of Raoul Wallenburg in 2012.

Lena Ag currently serves as the head of the Kvinna till Kvinna Foundation, a group which supports women’s organising in conflict regions and which Ag helped found in 1993. She has also worked as a communications advisor at the European Commission for Commissioner Margot Wallström, as well as in the Swedish Ministry of Justice, and for Greenpeace.

Peter Dahlen is an native of Delaware in the eastern United States who moved to Sweden in the spring of 2001 and served as President of the American Club of Sweden until 2007. Prior to moving to Sweden Dahlen studied and worked in Washington, DC, serving as a professional staff member on the US Senate Committee of the Judiciary.

Jaleh Taheri is a native of Washington state in the western United States who received a masters degree in 2010 from Lund University where she founded and now heads the Women for Sustainable Growth project at Lund’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies.

Magnus Ranstorp is Research Director of the Centre for Asymmetric Threat Studies at the Swedish National Defence College (Försvarshögskolan) and one of Sweden’s foremost experts on Islamic terrorism. Following the September 11 attacks, CNN named Ranstorp its principal terrorism expert. In 2003 he was invited to testify before the first hearing of the 9/11 Commission.

Beth Dacey is an native of Massachusetts in the eastern United States who has lived in Stockholm since 1993. In addition to contributing and blogging for The Local, she works as a copywriter/editor and intercultural communications consultant.

Tom Kelsey is a retired US diplomat who was stationed at the US embassy in Stockholm from 1999 until 2002. After finishing his diplomatic career in 2007, he moved back to Sweden and now serves on the Board of Directors of the American Club of Sweden.

Bitte Hammargren is a foreign correspondent for the Svenska Dagbladet (SvD) newspaper who covers the Middle East. In 2008, Sweden’s National Press Club (Publicistklubben) named Hammargren recipient of its major prize for her coverage of the Middle East. In March 2011, she and several other journalists published a book about the recent revolution in Egypt.

Where were you/what were you doing on 9/11?

Olle Wästberg: At home on Park Avenue and 64th Street in New York. I was preparing for an exhibit of graduation works from The College of Arts, Crafts and Desigen (Konstfack) in Stockhoklm. The students were just coming in when the planes hit the World Trade Center.

Lena Ag: I was at work when one of my colleagues yelled to say that something had happened in the United States and told me to turn on the television.

Peter Dahlen: I was in my office in Stockholm when an American colleague in our Frankfurt office called and told us to turn on CNN. We gathered around the office television and watched in stunned silence.

Jaleh Taheri: It was a normal day of my senior year in high school in Washington State.  I was on my way to school when the news from New York started coming over the airwaves.

Magnus Ranstorp: I was on a train in the UK heading to York and was probably the last person to see the planes crash into the towers. I received a call from CNN seeing if I could return to London. I ended up briefing Christiane Amanpour, who was their foreign correspondent at the time.

Beth Dacey: I was in a lesson with a client so my phone was off and we had no other media input. After work I turned on my phone and heard a message from another American saying she was frantically worried about our friends in New York and all I could imagine was there must have been a storm like a hurricane. I thought she was overreacting.  

Once in my living room I turned on CNN. The two towers had already collapsed at this point but I first saw the recap and images of the burning towers.

I stared at the TV until I saw the images of the two collapsed towers. I was in stunned silence and disbelief. I couldn’t process the reality of it and kept trying to convince myself it hadn’t happened.

Tom Kelsey: A colleague had heard a radio report and came rushing in to my office saying that we should turn on the television set that was sitting in the corner.

I couldn’t believe what I was seeing on television, and thought that the plane crashing into the World Trade Center was a terrible accident.

When the second plane hit the towers, then we knew that this was an attack of some kind.

Bitte Hammargren: I as working as a reporter in the newsroom of Svenska Dagbladet. I got a phone call just after the first plane had crashed into one of the twin towers. The next second I was standing in front of a TV screen, so I saw the live broadcasting of the second plane crashing into the World Trade Center.

What was your immediate reaction?

Olle Wästberg: After a moment of doubt, I first thought of the group of Swedish students that regulary had class in one of the towers. Then I started to run to my office, twenty blocks south.

Lena Ag: Shock. I saw in real time how the second plane flew into the second tower and I saw them fall. It was a horrific experience and I immediatedly wanted to get in touch with my daughter and other people close to me.

Peter Dahlen: Horror, shock, and fear for my friends in the Pentagon and World Trade Center.

Jaleh Taheri: I was in complete shock. I thought something was wrong with the radio in my car and thought that it was some kind of prank.  But then when I arrived at school and saw people sitting around TVs, dazed, confused, crying and bewildered, I realised that this was going to change our lives forever.

Magnus Ranstorp: I knew immediately what it was, that only Osama bin Laden was capable of carrying something out on that scale. Back in London, I had the feeling that the city was under siege. No one knew if more attacks might be coming. I was also hit with a feeling of depression when I later heard interviews with people who had lost loves ones.

Beth Dacey: After watching nearly all evening until after midnight I went to bed. I got up in the morning to go to work. It was a sunny morning in Stockholm and all I could do was look around me and wonder how the world could be still carrying on.

I don’t know if I expected everything to stand still but seeing “normal” all around me from my apartment on Söder, along Södermälarstrand and into the Kungsträdgården area I kept expecting life to have changed and it was overwhelming to see that life was just going on as usual.

Tom Kelsey: At home that night, I was glued to my television, hoping for some good news, only to learn of the full scale of the attacks and the other two planes. A friend from childhood was staying with me for a few days and we both recalled where we were when President Kennedy was shot – another life-changing moment for us.

After a sleepless night, we reported for work the next morning and were briefed on what we all knew already, from watching CNN. The world had changed. Our world had changed.

Bitte Hammargren: Horror. At the time I was covering Swedish and EU political affairs. I immediately called the press officer of the Swedish Minister of Defence, Paula Burrau. She apparently got the breaking news from me.

The Minister of Defence, at that time Björn von Sydow, happend to be in a closed meeting with all the key ministers, political leaders and the Swedish king at the Royal Palace, a meeting of the Foreign Relations Committee (Utrikesnämnden). We learned afterwards that it took some time before anyone was allowed to intervene into that meeting to tell what happened in New York and at the Pentagon.

What impact did 9/11 have on your community/profession/group?

Olle Wästberg: One Swede was murdered by the terrorists, a 25-year-old named David Tengelin who worked in one of the towers on the 100th floor. Close to everyone in New York was affected of course, as were the Swedes there at the time. There was a gathering in the evening of September 11th in the Swedish Church in New York. I don’t remember my worlds, but they were came from a state of chock, and from my heart.

Lena Ag: It’s created a climate of fear that borders on distrust among people and groups. As a peace and women’s rights activist, I feel my work fighting for peace and human rights has been made more difficult.

The developing optimism which infused the end of the last century, which culminated in common measures to eliminate poverty by 2015, came to an abrupt halt.

Peter Dahlen: For Americans and American organisations in Sweden it completely changed the tenor and tone of our events for some time. For example, we could not hold events at the US Embassy for a long time after 9/11. When we could resume hosting events there, naturally, the security was greatly heightened. Overall, and no matter where we held our events there were increased security concerns and a reluctance to widely publicise events.

Jaleh Taheri: There was a lot of fear and distrust.  People were scared.  Some people were depressed because they could not fathom that an attack like this could happen in the United States.

Hatred and discrimination against Muslims continued to increase each year after 9/11. It’s a serious problem when one section of a society is so overtly hated and has become the token scapegoat for any and all political frustrations.

Magnus Ranstorp: 9/11 was a huge shock in Sweden, but there was still an impression that what happened in the United States wouldn’t happen here. And the ensuing debate about the legality of the Iraq war muddled the issue here.

Beth Dacey: My home country and the country of my childhood and everything it focused on changed that day. If America ever had an innocence, it was lost on 9/11. Travel became something that was dangerous, Arabs and Muslims became the object of irrational fears.

People starting hating people who never harmed anyone. And if you were Christian before 9/11 but not active, you starting needing to allude to god in your life whether you wanted to or not. 9/11 removed non-religious people’s rights to not be religious.

Tom Kelsey: Almost immediately, flowers, wreaths and candles began to appear outside the Embassy gates, so many, in fact, that we had to move the makeshift memorial across the street.

I remember being stopped on the street in Stockhlom, a very unusual occurrence regardless of current events, probably by either looking like an American or being overheard speaking English, and having total strangers express strong sympathies and words of support.

Suddenly, I felt that we as Americans in a very safe city and country were exposed to unknown threats. I can’t say that it was paranoia, but I do recall looking over my shoulder and into my rear view mirror much more often over the next several months.

Bitte Hammargren: I was about to start my new assignment as a Turkey and Middle East Correspondent of Svenska Dagbladet that autumn. I never had any difficulty filling up my working time after 9/11.

What impact did 9/11 have on Sweden/Swedish society?

Olle Wästberg: We were all Americans, at least for a while. Swedes went to to American embassy in Stockhoklm that night to pay their respects. A few days later, Sweden held a moment of silence for those killed .

In the long run I think Swedes have a tendency to forget. Even if the feelings in New York are more embedded now, 9/11 is still present in the city. But that’s not really the case in Sweden.

Lena Ag: Sweden is a part of the EU and the international community and has clearly been affected by the war on terror. The EU quickly adopted a number of laws without enough transparency or democratic grounding despite it resulting in increased control of citizens.

Sweden also demonstrated it was ready to put human rights considerations aside to help the United States hunt terrorists. The deportation of Ahmed Agiza and Mohammed Alzery to Egypt are shameful examples of this.

Peter Dahlen: In the immediate aftermath, Swedes were extremely kind, caring and open. I still remember strangers in coffee shops, restaurants and shops expressing their condolences to me when they heard my accent and realised I was an American.

Jaleh Taheri: It’s hard to say for sure, but I do know that hate crimes against Muslims and people from the Middle East have been on the rise since then.

Magnus Ranstorp: There was a different discourse here than in the rest of Europe for many years and from a policy perspective, Sweden was a bit late in bending the stovepipes of bureaucracy from a “need to know” mentality to a “need to share” mentality.

Swedes still have a hard time talking about the threat from Islamic extremism. The Stockholm suicide bombing in December 2010 was a huge wake-up call, but the debate is still extremely polarised and Swedes have struggled to find the middle ground.

Beth Dacey: Swedes witnessed for the first time the vulnerability of  the US, which up until 9/11 seemed to have a standing image as invincible and indestructible. I think the US became “mortal” in the eyes of the average Swede from that date.

In many ways, that gave Swedes the opportunity to feel sympathy for Americans. The date made Americans more “human” to the average Swede. It also added to the “loss of innocence” path Sweden had stepped on starting in 1986 with the murder of prime minister Olof Palme. And while Swedes were still shocked by the 2003 murder of Anna Lindh, it somehow still played into a continuing acceptance of a harsher, crueler and less secure world.

Tom Kelsey: I think that recent events, both here in Sweden and Norway, have brought home the realisation that we are all exposed, in one way or another, to the actions of extremists.

Bitte Hammargren: Islamophobia grew in Sweden, hate crimes against Swedish Muslims have been on the rise and the Islamophobic Sweden Democrats have been riding on this wave.

From an international perspective, Sweden got drawn into President Bush’s so called war on terror. For Sweden this meant crossing a red line with the deportation of two “terrorist” labelled Egyptians by a CIA plane landing on Swedish soil. The CIA flew them to Egypt, where they were tortured. Sweden was later condemned by the UN Committee against torture and the deportations put a stain on Sweden’s reputation.

In your view, how has Sweden/Swedish society succeeded in adapting to a post 9/11-world? Why or why not?

Olle Wästberg: We still think we live in an idyllic spot in the world here in Sweden. But even with two political murders and one suicide bomber – it still doesn’t seem to really change our mood in a deeper way.

Lena Ag: A main concern is that it’s hard to get a handle on all the new laws that were adopted by the EU after 9/11 and which Sweden must adjust to. What are the long-term consequences?

The 9/11 terror attacks and the following war on terror has also led to a harsher climate in Sweden. We’ve seen how prejudice against Muslims has grown stronger, which affects many people’s everyday lives.

Peter Dahlen: Sweden has succeeded in taking the necessary precautions and implementing heightened security measures without making the average citizen feel threatened or intimidated.

Magnus Ranstorp: One thing Sweden has been good at it taking a holistic view of the threat posed by extremism of all types and that the opposite sides often feed off of one another. It’s important that we not be blinded by one and thus overlook the others.

But Sweden is like Japan, it’s a consensus culture and no one wants to offend anyone else…it’s a function of the Swedish model of inclusiveness which leaves us with an acute awareness that we shouldn’t be stigmitising any specific community.

There are still people on the left who think that the threat of Islamic extremism is something make believe, while at the other end of the spectrum you have the Sweden Democrats who play on people’s fears. But the debate about social cohesion and multiculturalism isn’t going away. The question is how to manage it.

Beth Dacey: Sweden has managed to stay away from being overly paranoid even after suffering its own close call with a suicide bomber. Sweden has also stood stoically by its resolve to remain as open and democratic as it believes it should be.

Bitte Hammargren: Sweden is cooperating more closely with NATO, as we have seen in Afghanistan and Libya. These decisions are taken by the Swedish parliament, which is crucial. The NATO operation in Libya is solidly based on a UN resolution. But the ISAF operation in Afghanistan is so much more complicated.

In my view Sweden, needs to reevaluate the word ”stability” in its foreign policy. Turning a blind eye to human rights abuses if dictatorships were considered to be allies of the West or selling weapons to dictatorships does not mean supporting stability in the real sense of the word.

Looking back ten years later, how has 9/11 changed your view of the world we live in?

Olle Wästberg: Everyone lives in an environment with more risks. The world is a more dangerous place, and you feel it every time you travel. The big risk for prosperity and human compassion is that 9/11 started a development where nations have become more inward looking and more isolated.

Lena Ag: I feel the world has become a more insecure and hostile place after 9/11.

Peter Dahlen: I feel like the world is less secure — wherever I am and especially when I’m in important buildings like the Capitol and near popular attractions that attract tourists.

Jaleh Taheri: The aftermath of 9/11 has shown me how destructive politics based upon fear can be in the United States, but also here in Sweden. We must ask ourselves where are the roots of intolerance and misunderstanding in our own societies. We must understand that human interaction and connectedness across the world is very complex.

9/11 also reminds me of how deeply interconnected we all are. We are all in this together and need to take the time to work together to make our world a better place for everyone in it.

Magnus Ranstorp: Islamic extremism is a real threat. If you ask people in the intelligence community, even though there may not have been any more major attacks, it’s not because of a lack of trying.

One thing we’ve seen is that these things arrive in bunches, it seems and that the come with greater frequency and that no matter how much we prepare, they are extremely hard to prevent.

Beth Dacey: I’m more pessimistic toward a previously-held belief that we can all live in this world together and respect the diversity of different viewpoints.

Tom Kelsey: I feel that, as an ex-pat living here in Sweden that our post-9/11 world, and its security, requires the continuing cooperation of all peoples, and all governments. It’s important to remember that We are many, and the terrorists are few.

Bitte Hammargren: I have become more cynical about Western governments. But on the other hand I think that the Arab spring, when ordinary people in the Arab world call for justice, dignity, accountability, transparency and democracy, gives a lot of hope for the future. The change will take a long time, but young people in the Arab world don’t accept to be submissive to authoritarian regimes.

Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.


Swedish prosecutors upgrade Almedalen knife attack to terror crime

Prosecutors in Sweden are now treating the murder at the Almedalen political festival as a terror crime, with the country's Säpo security police taking over the investigation.

Swedish prosecutors upgrade Almedalen knife attack to terror crime

In a press release issued on Monday evening, the Swedish Prosecution Authority, said that the 32-year-old attacker, Theodor Engström, was now suspected of the crime of “terrorism through murder”, and also “preparation for a terror crime through preparation for murder”. 

Engström stabbed the psychiatrist Ing-Marie Wieselgren last Wednesday as she was on her way to moderate a seminar at the Almedalen political festival on the island of Gotland. 

Although he was a former member of the neo-Nazi Nordic Resistance Movement, police said his motive seemed to be to protest against Sweden’s psychiatry services, who he felt had treated his own mental illness badly. 

The release gave no details as to why the 32-year-old was now being investigated for a more serious crime, but terror expert Magnus Ranstorp told the Expressen newspaper that the shift indicated that police had uncovered new evidence. 

READ ALSO: What do we now know about the Almedalen knife attack? 

“The new crime classification means that they’ve either found a political motive for the attack which meets the threshold for terrorism, and that might be a political motive for murdering Ing-Marie Wieselgren,” he said. “Or they might have discovered that he was scouting out a politician, or another target that could be considered political.” 

Engström’s defence lawyer said last week that his client, who he described as disturbed and incoherent, had spoken in police interrogations of having “a higher-up target”.