Iceland’s Only Police Shooting

In 2013, Iceland experienced its first and only police involved shooting death. Police responded to reports of shotgun fire in a suburb of Reykjavik. Officers tried to contact the gunman, a 59-year old man, but he was unresponsive and continued shooting. Tear gas was then used to subdue him, but to no effect. Finally, an armed special forces team entered the apartment with shields, still seeking to overpower the gunman. But when two officers were injured by continuing gunfire, they finally returned fire and downed the gunman. He was taken to the hospital, where he died; his motives remain unclear.

The National Police Commissioner called the episode “unprecedented” and expressed deep regret for the death, extending apologies to the perpetrator’s family. An investigation into the incident was launched, the guns involved on all sides were seized, and counseling was offered to the officers involved. The country of 330,000 entered a period of national mourning. While one out of three Icelanders own guns, and many are staunch advocates of that right, shootings, much less with police, are exceptionally rare.

Of course, the immediate counterpoint to the Iceland example—as well as to other countries with few police shootings, like Finland, Germany, or the Netherlands—is that those places are small and more homogeneous, and thus have greater sense of the kinship and relatability that fosters trust.

Yet American cops are as likely—if not more likely—to have fatal encounters in suburban and rural areas that are as small and homogeneous as Iceland, Finland, etc. White Americans are 26 times more likely to die by police gunfire than Germans of all backgrounds, whose country of 88 million is fairly large and diverse. Small, homogeneous states like Montana, West Virginia, and Wyoming—where both perpetrators and victims of deadly force are almost always white—have relatively high rates of police lethality.

There are numerous American cities, counties, and even states with comparable size and demographics to northern Europe that still suffer from more violence and police lethality. The problem clearly runs deeper, and demographics are no excuse.

Switzerland’s Fascinating Constitution

On this day in 1848, Switzerland drafted its first constitution, which created a federal system of government inspired partly by the United States and partly by France — two countries with very different approaches to republican governance.

While most of Europe was experiencing revolutionary uprisings, the Swiss set up system that officially abolished the nobility, established a bicameral legislature called the Federal Assembly (like our House and Senate), and combined centralized authority with significant autonomy for states and cities (the Swiss equivalent to a U.S. state is called a canton).

Thus, Switzerland—which even in the 13th century had set up a quasi-federal form of government—became one of history’s oldest constitutional republics. Federalism became, and remains, a key unifying ideal for a people divided across different languages, religions, and regional identities (since mountainous countries are notoriously fragmented).

But the Swiss model differed from America’s in two keys ways.

First, their constitution required every amendment to be approved by referendum, i.e. the popular vote. The Swiss balanced representative institutions with what they called “popular rights”: The parliament would do its job, as in any other republican system, but the people could keep them in check.

Second, the constitution had a clause stating that it could be completely rewritten if it was deemed necessary, thus enabling it to evolve as a whole instead of through piecemeal amendments. Thus, when the Industrial Revolution brought about various social and economic challenges (as it did in the U.S. and elsewhere), the Swiss responded in 1891 with a modified constitution that, among other things, allowed the people to initiate and approve constitutional changes themselves, while giving the federal government more responsibility for national security, trade, and the economy.

Direct democracy and federalism remain hallmarks of Swiss political and cultural identify. Swiss citizens may challenge any law passed by parliament if they gather 50,000 signatures against the law within 100 days. Then a national vote is scheduled where voters decide by a simple majority whether to accept or reject the law. Alternatively, any eight cantons can band together and also call for a constitutional referendum on a federal law.

Similarly, the federal “constitutional initiative” allows citizens to put a constitutional amendment to a nationwide vote if 100,000 voters sign the proposed amendment within 18 months. Then, the Federal Council (the Swiss equivalent to the presidency) and the Federal Assembly can supplement the proposed amendment with a counter-proposal, and voters must indicate which proposal they prefer.

Essentially, the people and their representatives directly engage with one another to sort out political questions. Every constitutional amendment must be accepted by a “double majority”: Most Swiss people must approve it, but so do most of the country’s 26 cantons.

The First Country to Make Public Transportation Free

Starting next summer, Luxembourg, a small country of 600,000 located between France and German, will remove all fares for buses, trams, and trains, making it the first country with free public transportation. 

More from The Guardian:

On top of the transport pledge, the new government is also considering legalising cannabis, and introducing two new public holidays.

Luxembourg City, the capital of the small Grand Duchy, suffers from some of the worst traffic congestion in the world.

It is home to about 110,000 people, but a further 400,000 commute into the city to work. A study suggested that drivers in the capital spent an average of 33 hours in traffic jams in 2016.

While the country as a whole has 600,000 inhabitants, nearly 200,000 people living in France, Belgium and Germany cross the border every day to work in Luxembourg.

Luxembourg has increasingly shown a progressive attitude to transport. This summer, the government brought in free transport for every child and young person under the age of 20. Secondary school students can use free shuttles between their institution and their home. Commuters need only pay €2 (£1.78) for up to two hours of travel, which in a country of just 999 sq miles (2,590 sq km) covers almost all journeys.


Let’s see if other, bigger countries take note. 

How the World’s Most Livable City Tackles Affordable Housing

According to the latest annual rankings by the Economist Intelligence Unit, Vienna, Austria unseated seven-year titleholder Melbourne, Australia as the world’s most livable city. (Though Melbourne was a very respectable second place.)

The livability index is based on 30 factors including access to health care, education, infrastructure, culture, the environment and political and social stability. As usual, Canadian, Australian and Japanese cities made up most of the top spots: after Vienna and Melbourne were Osaka, Calgary, Sydney, Vancouver, Toronto, Tokyo, Copenhagen and Adelaide, Australia. (Helsinki, Finland is typically in the top ten as well.) Continue reading

Schola Medica Salernitana

Founded in the ninth century in Salerno, Italy, the Schola Medica Salernitana was the first medical school of its kind, aimed at expanding medical knowledge and professionalizing the practice of medicine. It rose to prominence as one of the most important sources of medical knowledge in the world, due largely to Salerno’s cosmopolitan outlook – like most Italian city-states, it had diplomatic and commercial relations beyond Europe, particularly with the Muslims and Byzantines, who had a wealth of medical knowledge, both preserved and of their own making.

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A depiction of the medical school in one of Avicenna’s medical works, The Canon of Medicine (Wikimedia Commons)

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The World’s First Atlas

Today’s Google Doodle is a particular treat for a map lover like me: it commemorates the publication in 1570 of the world’s first atlas, the Theatrum Orbis Terrarum (Theatre of the World) by Flemish cartographer Abraham Ortelius.

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As Forbes explains, Ortelius’ work was an unusual concept at the time: an expertly-crafted book of similarly-sized maps neatly organized by geography. Continue reading

The Visible World in Pictures

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The Orbis Sensualium Pictus (Visible World in Pictures) is a textbook for children written by Czech educator John Amos Comenius and published in 1658. It was the first widely used children textbook with pictures, covering a broad range of topics ranging from simple physics to social studies. Its comprehensive material and unique combination of visual and lexical (written) education made it revolutionary for the time, quickly spreading across Europe and setting the standard for children’s textbooks for centuries.

Comenius was one of the the earliest champions of universal education, including for women and the poor. He promoted a dynamic approach to teaching that went beyond the common and dull emphasis on memorization. He is thus regarded as the father of modern education.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia.

If Only We Listened to De Gaulle

In 1934, Charles de Gaulle, leader of the Free French Forces and the French Resistance during the Second World War, wrote Vers l’Armée de Métier (Toward a Professional Army), which formulated how France should organize its military. It was ahead of its time in advocating for a professional army based on mobile armored divisions, namely mechanized infantry and tanks. Not only did he propose this as a way to keep Germany in check, but he saw it as a means of enforcing international law.

Unfortunately for France and its allies, the book did extremely poorly in its home country: only 700 copies were sold. However, it sold ten times as many copies in neighboring Germany, where even Adolf Hitler himself reportedly studied it. Sure enough, Germany employed a very similar approach to du Galle’s, with its panzer units and mobile infantry sweeping through the country in the invasion of France in 1940.

At the time, de Gaulle, who had served with distinction in the First World War, remained a colonel, due to his bold views antagonizing France’s conservative military leaders. He nonetheless implemented many of his theories and tactics as commander of a tank regiment, and during an offensive against German armor at Montcornet on May 17th, he managed to temporarily turn back enemy forces without the benefit of air support. While this ultimately proved inconsequential in slowing the invasion, it was one of the few victories France enjoyed prior to its rapid capitulation just one month later.

Whereas French collaborators and traitors would blame French society for the fall of the country, de Gaulle – who refused to surrender and extolled his countrymen to continue fighting – took the reverse stance, blaming French military and civilian leaders while believing the French people had the courage and moral stamina to keep resisting. Given the sheer size and strategic value of the French Resistance, as recognized by Allied leaders like Eisenhower, his point was validated. If only his prescient book and ideas had been heeded, or at the very least he be placed in the higher ranking he earned. World War Two may have gone very differently, if at all.

H/T to  Jean Lacouture‘s DeGaulle: The Rebel 1890-1944 (Vol. 1)

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Still Life: Vase with Pink Roses

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Source: Wikimedia Commons

Still Life: Vase with Pink Roses by Vincent van Gogh. It was painted in 1890 while Van Gogh was preparing to leave the asylum in Saint-Rémy for the quiet town of Auvers-sur-Oise.

As his departure neared, he became increasingly optimistic about his future, as reflected in his choice of subject and colors: Van Gogh had a love for flowers of all kinds, and tended to paint them in his brighter moments. Vivid colors similarly reflected a more positive mood. Continue reading

Brief Reflections On Why So Many People Care About Brexit

It is fascinating to see how many people are taking an interest in Brexit and the European Union as a whole. Up until then, one rarely heard the media, let alone the average American, give much attention to the E.U. or its various issues and dynamics. Generally speaking, we Americans tend to be an insular lot, and our interest in the world is usually limited to conflicts, the actions of rivals or enemies, or the saga of U.S. citizens abroad.

I suspect much of what is driving our interest in the event is the fact that 1) it involves a culturally similar country for which most Americans have an affinity and familiarity with, and 2) that Brexit and the E.U. as a whole represent debates and issues of universal relevance: sovereignty, integration, xenophobia, nationalism, globalization, popular will vs. representative politic, and so on.

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