It may be significant that a young Swedish author’s books are about evil, revenge, and justice. The Sweden we all know is egalitarian, humane, rational, and kind. The people are understanding and generous, and they abhor violence. They were neutral in World War II. Life in Sweden is neat, careful, sensible, and compassionate. Emotions are peculiarities, sex is hygienic, punishment is rehabilitation. The only problems are boredom and suicide.
Not so in the Stieg Larrson books. Here, Swedish men are sadistic murderers, molesters, and neo-nazi rapists. Our heroine is a victim who won’t accept victimhood, and she uses her digital talents to endure and survive. She rescues the Swedish journalist – a quintessential good guy who seeks to uncover ‘corruption’ in Swedish society – from near murder. This guy thinks the man who nearly murdered him ‘must be very sick’, but she will have none of that. She watches the would-be murderer (who has committed other serial murders) burn alive, when she could have saved him, and this bothers her not at all. She finds herself having to explain the obvious: “He knowingly tortured and murdered innocent people, and he enjoyed it”. Hello.
To those who have always been safe and comfortable, justice comes to be seen as an immature emotional need, like revenge, a juvenile anger. Compassion is always proper, the way to break the ‘cycle of violence’. War is never the answer, punishment ‘doesn’t work’.
Perhaps in homogeneous societies, like Sweden up until recently, consensus is easy, trust is high, others are understandable, empathy is natural, good will is a default. Such a society, however, eventually provides rich opportunity for exploitation by the cunning, the selfish, the deceptive, and the mean. Such a society can become, like Larsson’s Swedish journalist, naive.
Our heroine’s abusive father is an evil Russian. She is only half Swedish.
Compassion over justice may need a reset, unfortunately. In a tolerant and cosmopolitan world, justice may be more necessary. These novels may be trying to say so.
John F. Kennedy famously said: “Don’t hate your enemies but never forget their names”.
It is the weak who suffer the most from the emphasis on compassion over justice, and it is the powerful who suffer less from the failure of justice. Yet, ironically, it is the powerful who are most readily advocating compassion.
Serving Justice, it gets forgotten, isn’t so much about punishing the guilty as it is about preventing future injustice.
Our heroine seems to know that trying to understand evil may feel comfortable, but it doesn’t do much for the next victims.
Sweden may be trying to tell us something.