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Candelight vigil in Copenhagen's Osterbro area on Monday
Candelight vigil in Copenhagen's Osterbro area on Monday
Francesca Paci

COPENHAGEN — Niels Ivar Larson, a Danish journalist and one of the organizers of last Saturday night's debate on Islam and free speech at the Krudttønden cafe, says he's in shock that a terrorist attacked the event and subsequently a synagogue, killing two and injuring five police officers.

"Despite having received threats, Denmark has never been the subject of an attack like this, the worst since World War II," he says. "We knew that this could happen."

He describes it as an eventuality so theoretical that, after having introduced the French ambassador, when he heard the shots ring out, he didn't think about terrorism. "It was just a second, and then I heard shouting in a foreign language — maybe it was Arabic — then we all jumped under desks, and I remembered our colleagues at Charlie Hebdo."

Now, he says, life, at least to all appearances, is continuing the same as always. The locals went about their Sunday the following day, mothers with flushed cheeks pedalling their bikes with kids in carts behind them. The police aren't any more visible, though the atmosphere feels heavy, as though it was going to rain.

Denmark, the idyllic home to 5.5 million people and dubbed the happiest country in the world, has the collective feeling that what happened the last few days is something out of a movie. "No one imagined that it could happen to us," says university student Andreas Skadborg, confessing he finds it hard to believe that his country has suddenly found itself in the crosshairs of the sectarian hatred that is unfortunately marking the new millennium.

The Danish synagogue attacked Sunday morning is a couple of blocks away. In front of the entrance, between the people gathered in solidarity and supervised by a police squad, 52-year-old Jacob articulates the same astonishment. "We're not in France here, and until now the Jews had never felt in danger," he says.

With two people dead and five injured, it's Danish intelligence head Jens Madsen who hypothesized about a massacre eerily similar to the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris last month. The presumed killer was a 22-year-old who had devoted himself to crime.

The loss of innocence

Krudttønden cafe is in the Østerbro area, one of the most affluent in Copenhagen. At the front of the building, where cameras are stationed, an expanse of funeral candles are lined up. Writer Morten Brask lives a few blocks away. "I talked with my friends, I looked on social networks," he says. "There's a strange atmosphere here, almost as if fear made us lose our bearings. We must stay firm and carry on as if nothing had happened."

The Danes have lost their innocence over the past few years, Brask says. "In 2005, by publishing the cartoons caricaturing Muhammad, the Jyllands-Posten revealed that the tolerance of a "village" like ours can change to completely the opposite in the global village," he says, referring to the daily Danish newspaper.

Culturally and politically, the challenge here is radical Islam, which the young Danish poet Yahya Hassan has denounced for some time now. "It's undeniable that Islamic fundamentalism is now putting our values on trial," says a young man named Hecktor, who's hanging out at a student pub not far away from the city's Christiania district.

His friend Clement Knudsen, who supports the far-left Red-Green Alliance, is thinking about the upcoming general election in September. "This will benefit the right-wing Danish People's Party," he says. "For years, they've been riding on the anti-Europeanism that seduces even anti-racists like me, but now they'll leave the Polish immigrants alone and campaign about Islamophobia: us versus them."

Staying united

Identity is a sensitive subject in Denmark, where the left and right agree on issues such as gay marriage or abortion, in the belief that political issues have to do with the economy and foreign affairs.

"We must be united," booms Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt. And insists the journalist Larsen, "We must reject any self-censorship."

Denmark admits its shock but flaunts control — perhaps too much — with everyone ruling out any reprisals against Islamic places of worship. Yet, says Pakistani taxi driver Mohammed, parents of Muslim immigrants who live here are phoning to see if everything is OK.

"I am a liberal and a socialist, but I'm afraid that the EU's contradictions are making us implode from the inside," says 26-year-old Sisdel Jensen. Today he looks back and smiles bitterly. "Our sense of Protestant responsibility conflicts with the cultural differences of people who, in the absence of control, won't pay the price for those who hate our freedom."

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