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The Times: Jokela Shooting

What if this happens in my school tomorrow?
Tearful young voice keeps asking this from Finnish emergency helpline. There is no answer.

Before killing eight innocent people, Pekka-Eric Auvinen wrote on his blog where, when and how he was going to do it. When this 18-year-old admirer of Hitler and the Columbine killers bragged that he had finally got a gun nobody listened. Even when he posted a YouTube video about his plan to massacre a school, nobody reacted. Why? Because this kind of thing does not happen in Finland. Columbine is far away from our backyard and the world we know.

So when the first bullet was shot in Jokela High School, a typical Finnish school where any of us could have sent our children, the only clear thing was that there was no going back to what Finland had been, a completely oblivious to fear for our children’s safety.

My home is not too far from where the tragedy took place in southern Finland. Much further from the home I know is what now has been written around the globe. The world press quickly painted a picture of a gloomy, half-light country full of suicide, guns and dark heavy metal music. But living in Finland isn't like that. Most Finns consider being born here as akin to winning the lottery of life. It is a peaceful, well educated country with a low crime rate. Yes, murders happen from time to rare time: but the classic Finnish homicide is of someone knifing his best friend after an argument on a drunken fishing trip and then, remorse-stricken, handing himself in to the police.

But since Wednesday, at least temporarily the streets now feel edgy and people have started asking the awkward question was our society too naive to see this lurking danger? Why there is a growing number of youth not feeling well?

My mother, who has spent all her working life as a teacher of problem children, points out that the Finnish mentality is reserved and unsociable, so loners have never been considered that different or a threat to society. During her 30-year career with the droupouts and misfits of Finnish society, it seemed reasonable not to take even the verbal threats of violence too seriously. Not in Finland. What she now sees, as the whole nation does, is that as unlikely as the Jokela massacre was, we might nevertheless have been too blue-eyed to foresee the signs of trouble.

For if we take a closer look we might just find the hidden potential for this disaster. Depression and loneliness are common in this country of short winter days (fact: Finland is a third larger than the UK but has less than a tenth of the population, so many people live remote existences). And is it a coincidence that one of my friends is part of the tragically large percentage of Finns who have killed themselves? (fact: The annual suicide rate is nearly 21 deaths for every 100,000 people; that's three times the British rate.) Nor can you avoid meeting alcoholics; some of my younger friends are proud of their ever heavier drinking habits.

One could also argue we have a Bowling for Columbine problem. We Finns, with a tradition of hunting for both pleasure and livelihood, have the third largest per capita ownership of handguns in the world. While none of my friends owns a gun, I would imagine anyone could get one and with compulsory military service every man over 18 years is used to shooting. Mental problems and gun ownership sound like a toxic combination but still there are few gun-related crimes in Finland or cases of the mentally unstable hurting anyone other than themselves.

Some blame the internet for changing Finnish society. Before the www era, the stereotype was of a shy and reserved Finnish person who used alcohol to ease social encounters. So in Finland there has always been a social demand for internet, because people feel it is easier to make contact with others through the cyberworld knowing they can hide behind their computer screens and pseudonyms. Little wonder that Finland is one of the most wired-up countries, with three quarters of us using the net. Internet chat forums and groups soon became the most common way for young people to socialise. Facebook, YouTube and Irc gallery are now an everyday necessity for Finnish youth.

But the internet is unregulated. Auvinen was influenced by extreme internet pages and the tragedy has all the signs of copycatting. Other Finnish students have been caught watching beheadings and X-rated material on school computers. And it is the nature of the internet to push people to ever more extreme sites.

But, despite all that, it would be a mistake to see the Jokela killings as a “Finnish thing”. These types of outrages are as likely as anywhere in the world we live in and often trickered by other tragedies. The murderer's rambling internet manifesto shows just how random everything was; even his clumsy attempts to use difficult concepts from Darwin and Nietzsche to justify his actions.

A friend who is covering the tragedy for Finnish television tells me that the unanimous opinion on the streets is that everybody sees and condemns this tragedy as the cowardly work of a single sick, attention-seeking individual. But understanding that such horror is the random result of the actions of one irrational and inhumane man does not answer that tearful question: “What if it was my school tomorrow?”

Aki Riihilahti

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