Is there anything more yawn-inducing than a presidential visit to Sweden?
On Wednesday, President Obama arrived in Stockholm for a hastily convened trip to the Nordic country, where he stopped at the Stockholm synagogue, reiterated his call for military action in Syria, and paid tribute to Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat who saved tens of thousands of Hungarian Jews during World War II before his disappearance. Scheduled after Obama decided to cancel his summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin, the trip has something of a placeholder feel to it. Just read this White House fact sheet on the United States and Sweden’s role as global leaders on climate change and clean energy to get a sense of just how, well, not interesting this trip is.
But for the U.S. Secret Service, the trip is anything but trivial. According to Swedish media, the U.S. law-enforcement agency determined in its assessment of the security situation prior to Obama’s visit that Sweden is a so-called "high-risk" country, and that Obama runs a real risk of being assassinated during his Scandinavian detour. Yes, that’s right, according to the Secret Service, Sweden — that socialist idyll — is ground zero in the plot to kill Obama.
As the Secret Service sees it, Sweden has a troubling history of high-level political assassinations. In fact, within a span of less than 20 years, one of its prime ministers — Olof Palme — and a foreign minister — Anna Lindh — were assassinated. Even more troubling to the Secret Service, Palme’s killing, which occurred on a Stockholm street corner in 1986, remains unsolved. Add to that the stabbing death of Lindh in a Stockholm department store in 2003, and the Secret Service sees a mortal threat to the president.
As if Sweden’s history of political assassinations wasn’t enough, the Secret Service also sees a troubling trend of jihadi terrorism in Sweden. At least 30 Swedes have traveled to Syria to fight with Islamist rebels, and in 2010, a suicide bomb went off in downtown Stockholm (no one besides the attacker was killed). It is also believed that al Qaeda has cultivated a group of supporters among the country’s Muslim community.
With this assessment in mind, the Secret Service has shut down a huge swath of the capital city for the presidential visit. Obama and his huge entourage have taken over the entire Grand Hotel, the super-posh establishment that sits across the harbor from the royal castle. A nearby subway station will be shut down, and large parts of the city center will be closed to traffic. To say that Stockholmers are kvetching over the disturbance is a huge understatement.
But is there something to the security concerns highlighted by these eagle-eyed Secret Service agents? For one thing, the agents clearly aren’t particularly close students of history. To draw parallels between the Palme and Lindh assassinations and Obama’s visit is to ignore the circumstances of their killings. Take Palme, for example. The beloved Social Democratic prime minister — arguably the most prominent figure in 20th-century Swedish politics, and a founding father of its welfare state — was killed after he dismissed his bodyguards for the night and went to catch a movie with his wife, Lisbeth. After the film screening, the couple decided to walk home through Stockholm. As they passed by an arts and crafts store, Lisbeth stopped to look in the window, only for a a gunman to step out of the alleyway, walk up to Palme, and shoot him. After firing at Lisbeth, who survived, he fled up an alleyway. The murder remains unsolved. Lindh, meanwhile, was killed — stabbed to death — by a disturbed young man named Mijailo Mijailovic at a downtown department store as she was shopping for clothing. She didn’t even have any bodyguards at the time of the attack. (In one of the stranger twists in Swedish political history, Lindh spoke at Palme’s funeral in 1986. At the time, she was the head of the Social Democratic youth organization and the youngest speaker at the event.) In short, had the two politicians not been wandering around Stockholm without security, they’d probably both be alive today. Meanwhile, the security for Obama is so tight that the manhole covers outside his hotel have been welded shut.
Or maybe the Secret Service agents have been reading a little too much Stieg Larsson. The assassination in Stockholm of an American president embroiled in an international crisis certainly sounds like a promising premise for the next Swedish crime hit.
As for in the real world, not so much.