Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Swedish Mystery

A California auto accident involving alcohol, guns, a Ferrari, and a Swede.

SOMETHING STRANGE. Let's set the context. Sweden is obsessed with making safe cars -- Volvos and Saabs -- and they lose only 6.74 per 100,000 of their population to motor vehicle accidents each year (as compared to 16.39 per 100,000 here). In fact, they're highly responsible, enlightened, and mature generally, thanks to 50 years of socialistic government. Here are some other pertinent facts about the most superior people in Europe.

The whole country is obsessed with ending nasty habits like smoking, which they have reduced to half the level that still obtains in the U.S.

Welcome to smoke-free Sweden

On June 1st 2005 restaurants, cafes, bars and nightclubs throughout Sweden open their doors to a breath of fresh air. A smoking ban is the latest step in the country’s long-term efforts to combat the problems of tobacco consumption.

In 1963, 49 per cent of Swedish men and 23 per cent of Swedish women were active smokers. The startlingly high figures sent a shudder through the country’s health campaigners and initiated the move to kick out the habit

Sweden spearheaded tobacco control programmes and became one of the first countries in the world to pump money into public information and education services.

With a proactive track record in preventative measures, Sweden now joins a number of European countries to introduce legislation against smoking in bars, restaurants, cafes and nightclubs following the initiatives of Ireland, Norway, Italy and most recently Malta... Tobacco is the single biggest health risk in Sweden which houses 1.2 million smokers.

They also have very strict gun control laws, which may or may not work, but nevertheless bespeak a wonderfully progressive attitude toward the awfulness that is firearms:

Some claim that the culture in America accounts for the inverse relationship between guns and crime – "What works in America won’t work everywhere." So, narrowing the comparisons as much as possible, here are some results: Between Sweden, Norway, and Finland, you’re more likely to be a victim of crime if you’re a Swede. Both Norway and Finland have more relaxed gun laws and higher rates of gun ownership than Sweden. Sweden’s overall victimization rate is similar to America’s, and Sweden’s is increasing while America’s is decreasing.

And until the European Union began to coerce them to change existing laws, Sweden had even achieved a state of near-Prohibition of alcoholic beverages. According to one cultural observer:

When I arrived in Stockholm in the early 1960s Sweden was almost as far apart from the rest of Europe as the countries behind the iron curtain. People traveled little in those days and Sweden’s social- democratic government was a very paternalistic one, guiding citizens in the “right” direction in various ways....

In the 1950s Sweden still had ration books for alcoholic drinks. This allowed the authorities not only to limit the individual’s consumption but also to keep tabs on it. Every bottle you bought was entered into the book; when the limit was reached you weren’t allowed another drop. This authoritarian attitude was still very much in evidence when I arrived. Monopoly shops could be as crowded as railway stations, with over a hundred people waiting to place their order. Customers might be turned away summarily, no matter how long they had been queuing. The Swedes were friendly but subdued (at midnight, in sub-zero temperatures, one would see pedestrians patiently waiting for traffic lights to change before crossing roads empty of traffic). I recall one well-traveled Swede telling me that he never found such passivity in any other country.

While selling drink to the public was the Systembolaget’s raison d’être, it did everything possible to persuade them to abstain. When sales dropped, as they sometimes did (perhaps when illicit stills were unusually productive!), they published exultant advertisements in the press, drawing the public’s attention to the downward trend.

Some of the propaganda was alarmist. To men it was hinted that drinking would make them impotent; one poster in monopoly shop windows showed a picture of a human body with hideously distended internal organs, with a text claiming that such was the inevitable result of habitual drinking. Those wanting to go out for a drink found that there were scarcely more than three or four places in the whole of Stockholm where this was possible. And if you got into one of them (there was always a queue) you could not get a drink before you had ordered a hefty – and very expensive – sandwich. The drinks themselves were four or five times more expensive as in an English pub. All of this produced a neurosis about alcohol comparable to attitudes to sex in Victorian England.

The owner of the Ferrari in the accident is a man named Stefan Eriksson. He is Swedish, which means he was raised by his government to be a much better behaved (and more law-abiding) person than the facts of the accident seem to suggest he is:

The mystery deepened Monday in the case of the puzzling crash last week of a $1-million Ferrari Enzo on Pacific Coast Highway in Malibu.

Sheriff's detectives said Monday that they believe a gun's magazine discovered near the wreckage is connected to the crash, and they plan to interview an unnamed person who they believe was in the car with the Swedish game machine entrepreneur...

The totaled Ferrari was one of two Enzos that Eriksson brought into the United States from England along with the Mercedes SLR, Brooks said. But detectives concluded that the totaled vehicle did not have appropriate papers and was not "street legal" for driving in California, he said.

Detectives have been trying for nearly a week to sort out what exactly happened last Tuesday morning when Eriksson's Enzo — one of only 400 ever made — smashed into a telephone pole, totaling the car. Eriksson told deputies that he was the passenger and that a man he knew only as "Dietrich" was behind the wheel. But detectives have been openly skeptical of the story, noting that Eriksson had a bloody lip and that the only blood they found in the car was on the driver's-side air bag...

"The guy should have had an IQ test," said Malibu Mayor Pro Tem Ken Kearsley, who has been following the coverage of the crash with a half-grin. The driver's IQ "couldn't come up above 60 if he was doing 120 on PCH," Kearsley said.

But in fact, Brooks said Monday, the car was traveling 162 mph when it crashed, far faster than the 120 mph originally believed. The Ferrari, with just a few inches of undercarriage clearance, hit a bump at a crest in the road, sending the vehicle airborne and into the power pole, Brooks said.

The question of whether Eriksson was the driver is key to the case, Brooks said. Eriksson's blood-alcohol level was 0.09%, higher than the legal limit for operating a motor vehicle.

It all does make one wonder. It's not as if the road was some kind of serpentine obstacle course:

There are really two problems that need to be solved here. First and most importantly for Stefan is the question of what his legal defense should be. And here I think it's possible to give him some good advice. It's almost impossible to get convicted of anything in California as long as you can make all the halfwits they put on juries out there believe that you just couldn't help it. It also helps to have a very expensive lawyer who gives press conferences every 15 minutes. What Stefan's lawyer should say in his first press conference is that Stefan couldn't help it because it was America's fault. He wasn't from a country where they put a gun in one hand and a bottle of booze in the other right before they shoehorn you into a ridiculously fast car that can go three times the safe speed for the existing road conditions. How could he be expected to defend himself against that kind of pernicious influence? It was inevitable that he would succumb as he did. And not ever having been a teenager in the U.S., there was no chance that he would know how to operate a motor vehicle at high speed while drinking, shooting, and smoking at the same time. The jury will practically give him a standing ovation when they acquit.

The other more difficult question is, why? Why would a man so meticulously raised to be a "passive," law-abiding, vice-free citizen of the world's most advanced civilization engage in such reckless and immoderate behavior? For a long time (say, two minutes) I was stumped. Then I googled the words Sweden and suicide. Here's the first thing I found:

Suicide Crisis.

Sweden is a small country of only 8.9 million people. Today our standard of living is among the highest. Approximately 8 % of Sweden's gross national product amounts to health and medical services. Our people are among those who live longest. Almost 18% of Sweden's population are over 65 years old and 4.7% over 80 years old... In Sweden suicide is responsible for about 1,500 deaths each year. By way of comparison, approximately 600 persons are killed in traffic accidents yearly. Swedish women are likely to experience episodes of major depression twice as much as men. However, for suicide, male gender dominates. The rate among adolescents has increased markedly, and in the 15-44 age group suicide is the main cause of death. Depression is the most common experience in elderly suicide victims, while alcoholism is the most common diagnosis in the younger.

It's very hard to die or get yourself killed in Sweden. All the cars are safe, and all the drivers drive like old ladies, because most of them are. Crime may be rising, but you can't count on getting killed by a Swedish gunman just because you're sick to death of existing. It's increasingly hard to smoke yourself to death, and the authorities just aren't going to let you drink yourself to death. So what do you do after you take a fling at the high technology business world and come a cropper? You import the world's fastest car to the most libertine nation in the western world, and you get behind that wheel, and you figure if you're drunk and having a ruminative smoke at 160 mph when you fire that gun at your head, the situation just might result in the closest thing to bliss any Swede is likely to experience in this day and age.

If that's what happened, I don't know how to advise Stefan once he's overcome his legal difficulties. His best shot would be leveraging his newfound fame into a celebrity lifestyle where -- as in this country -- drinking and driving at high speed with mysterious firearms inside your not quite legally registered exoticar while being famous is considered admirable by millions and millions of people. But he probably wouldn't believe it. Not until he went on Oprah, that is.

Now that I've tried to solve Stefan's problems, maybe some of the brilliant social engineers in this country could explain to me why their Swedish-style plans for eliminating all the pleasurable vices from life in the United States won't result in 260 million Stefan Erikssons.

Forget it. I'm just pulling your chain. I know that most of you really do want to live to be a hundred, smoke-free, dry as a bone, stuffed with well-intentioned pills, and speed-limited in your little Saab old-age scooters to 5 mph on the sidewalks of St. Petersburg. I hope you enjoy it. Give my best to the boring old farts in your bingo club when you get there.

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