Cars burn during riots in Stockholm in 2013. telefonkiosk

Hundreds of cars have been torched in recent months, but why?

What’s behind the spate of vehicle arsons that have swept Scandinavia’s cities this year? Over the summer, cars have been set on fire across the region in a spree that shows no sign of abating just yet.

Between June and mid-August, 134 vehicles were set ablaze in Stockholm, 43 in Sweden’s second city of Gothenburg, and 108 in its third city, Malmö. Meanwhile, across the water in Copenhagen, there were 30 arson attacks on vehicles in August alone, until the arrest of a 21-year-old suspect led police to hope the streak would end. It didn’t, and this week Copenhagen’s car burnings began again, as they also did in neighboring areas of Sweden. Internationally at least, this isn’t what people expect from a region that is usually a byword for prosperity and social order.

It’s only accurate to point out that car burnings aren’t in fact an entirely new phenomenon in northern Europe. Berlin has had a similar problem for some time, though its recent vehicle arson attacks have been more specifically linked to protests against gentrification and inequality. Scandinavia has also experienced riots that have sometimes involved car burnings in the past—including this May—but the current spree has not, as yet, been a prelude to or clearly affiliated with outbreaks of unrest. With no particular group claiming responsibility in Sweden or Denmark, Scandinavians have groped for several different explanations for the craze.

Some theories, including from this Swedish former arsonist, suggest that it may be powered in part by the simple need for cash. According to his recollections from some years earlier, arsonists like him got paid by owners of older cars to torch their vehicles, so that they could claim insurance money above their actual value to replace them. Others have seen the burnings as an expression of rage from young men who see no other outlet for it, or find that the attention it gets them a kick. As a psychologist told the Danish newspaper Berlingske Tidende:

“It’s typically men in their late teens and early 20s who commit this sort of crime…they have no great respect for social norms and obligations and have a low threshold for frustration and aggression…This type of behavior gains them attention so they get an emotional reward.”

Still others have pointed toward Scandinavia’s growing social ills as the grey eminence behind the burnings. The arson attempts have mainly been concentrated in relatively deprived areas such as Malmö’s Rosengård, neighborhoods where social and ethnic segregation and a perceived lack of opportunities have left many young people, especially those from a non-Swedish background, frustrated that their futures are being overlooked. As one writer put it in Swedish Television’s online magazine:

“Until the day when everyone can help the working classes with secure jobs and homes, crime and riots will always be with us, attracting [people] like a light in the darkness.”  

Recent decades have indeed seen many of these regions’ traditionally worker-friendly, pro-subsidized housing policies systematically dismantled, bringing the area’s inequality levels much closer to the rest of Europe. Swedes and Danes on lower incomes may in general fare better than their counterparts in the U.K., but many have experienced a fall in living standards and feel shut out from much hope of improving their lives.

None of this justifies the nihilism and indifference to other people’s safety that the car burnings imply, but it does potentially help to explain the climate in which they can flourish. Sweden and Denmark may still be seen as world leaders in many areas of urban policy, but they aren’t necessarily as calm and orderly as outsiders might think.

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