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New Scientist 1974, volume 61, number 886, page 486-487

The six day war in Stockholm

by Dr Nils Bejerot, professor of social medicine, Karolinska Institute, Stockholm

The use of gas in the Swedish bank drama last August was widely criticised. Here a consultant psychiatrist to the police, who was in the bank throughout the affair, gives his explanation of the strategy adopted.

The bank robbery in Stockholm in August 1973
held all Swedes, from the government and police to
the mass media and the public, in horrified suspense
for six days. I spent the whole of that week at the
bank as psychiatric consultant to the police. I
consider it instructive to answer the criticism of our
strategy expressed during and after the operation.

During the drama I was rung up by some
uninitiated psychiatrists and psychologists who
declared that all signs pointed to a bloody outcome.
In their opinion, the bank robber, when cornered
and desperate, would probably shoot the hostages
and perhaps himself, too. I was told that it was my
duty to persuade the police to stop the action and
also to induce the government to change its
instructions forbidding the robbers to leave the bank
with the hostages. In several newspapers journalists
supported this theory, on television a similar
opinion was expressed by a well-known child
psychiatrist, and nine lecturers in criminology at the
University of Stockholm broadcast an appeal along
the same lines.

In spite of all this pressure we followed the
opposite line. Here I can only give a short account
of some of the most important considerations on
which our strategy was based.

1. Right at the beginning the robber very nearly
killed a policeman with shots from his submachine
gun.

Conclusion: The man would be a serious danger
to the police in a confrontation in the bank, or in a
later chase.

A few days afterwards another policeman was
shot, and here again it was only by chance that this
did not end in the murder of a policeman. Or, the
other hand in the early stages two policemen, after
agreement with the bank robber, were able to go
into the bank unharmed and negotiate without being
shot at. As a physician I was able to move freely in
the bank and speak to the robber at close quarters.
It was clear that the man was not under the influence
of alcohol or drugs, nor was he psychotic (“insane”).
He was a resolute man of normal intelligence, and
he functioned in a rational way from the standpoint
of his criminal ambitions. Had he been psychotic,
it would have been very difficult to predict his
behaviour.

2. The robber demanded three million crowns and
insisted that Clark Olofsson, a prisoner who had a
further six years to serve, and who, two weeks
previously, had made an unsuccessful attempt to
escape by blowing up a prison door, should be
brought to the bank. He also demanded two pistols
and safe conduct for himself and Olofsson together
with the hostages.

Conclusion: ‘We were faced with a shrewd, daring
and ambitious professional criminal. He would not
be expected to do anything unless he would gain
something by it, directly or indirectly.

It must be remembered that among professional
criminals shooting at the police in a threatening
situation gives high status. It is, however, beneath
the dignity of these criminals to injure hostages.
With political terrorists the whole situation is
different, but this subject will not be discussed here.

3. The Swedish government quickly took two
decisions: (a) It agreed to the police using Olofsson,
with his own consent, in negotiations with the bank
robber; (b) the bank robber was not to be permitted
to leave the bank with the hostages. Otherwise the
police had a free hand.

The decision not to let the bank robber take the
hostages with him established a vitally important
principle. If the government had accepted that the
robbers had disappeared with three million crowns
and the hostages, we would probably have been
faced with a series of similar crimes in many
countries, just as with hijacking. We would have
been at a great psychological disadvantage in
relation to professional criminals and gangsterism.

4. My conversations with Olofsson confirmed the
opinion of the police. that he would not commit any
desperate act or do anything which would hazard
his own life. He was therefore allowed to join the
bank robber, although at that stage we were unable
to release the hostages in exchange for Olofsson
as the government had intended.

Conclusion: Apart from the fact that the bank
robber seemed to act logically in relation to his aims,
we now had in the bank also an intelligent man with
a strong will to live and a rational way of thinking.

5. In this situation the outcome of the drama was
given, and only a tactical blunder from one side or
the other could have caused bloodshed. At an early
stage the police had asked for a psychological
assessment of the risk to the hostages. I judged this
to be about 2 to 3 per cent in unfavourable
circumstances, for instance, if we forced the
operations too quickly and did not give the robber
enough time to realise that the fight was lost. With a
drawn-out course and the right amount of pressure,
I considered that the action was practically free from
risk for the hostages. It was clear to all initiated
persons that the hazards would be far greater if the
hostages had been allowed to accompany the robber,
regardless of where the journey might lead or how
long it might take.

6. Throughout the drama the bank robber acted in
a way we had predicted at an early stage. He shot at
the police when he had a chance, and in order to
emphasise his demands he demonstratively
detonated explosive paste in the bank hall and in
the ventilation system. He kept his promise not to
shoot people who came with food and drink,
realising that otherwise he would not have
received any necessities. As expected, also, he put
up a long and determined resistance.

Only two unexpected events occurred:
(a) In connection with the first attempt to use gas,
the robber made the hostages stand up with a noose
round their necks. The police and hostages were
given to understand that if gas was let in the
hostages would be strangled when they were no
longer able to stand up. This scheme took us
completely by surprise. We heard through the
microphones in the vault that the hostages
experienced this as a direct threat to their lives, and
the action was therefore immediately discontinued
for a time. Nobody outside or inside the bank vault
had slept properly for three days, and there was a
certain risk that one side or the other might make a
tactical mistake unless everyone had an opportunity
of resting. As with the robber’s previous behaviour,
the hanging arrangement was a serious threat, but
in my interpretation, not really intended to injure
the hostages. The bank robber here proved a little
more cunning than we were. A much-needed 12-
hour truce followed.

(b) The other psychological misjudgement was
that we expected the robber, during the final break
through into the bank vault, to shoot off all his
ammunition through the inner door to the vault
before he capitulated. Obviously the tear gas and
the determination of the final assault had such an
effect on him that he considered it best to give up a
few seconds earlier than we predicted.

Criminals are rational
It is astonishing that those critics who consider
they have a great understardirg of criminals and
their reaction patterns, and who declared throughout
that we should let the robbers escape with the
hostages and the money, is fact did not believe that
criminals think in a rational manner. Afterwards the
critics argued that it was mere luck that everything
went well. We who have worked with criminals for
decades and are now accused of regarding them as
madmen and monsters, know that they function
rationally in the situation in which they have placed
themselves. They are like players or gamblers, and
they are very good at their game, otherwise they
would never have become professional criminals.

As a piquant political addendum I would like to
point out that the government would have been in
an almost hopeless situation if I had collected some
of these so-called “progressive” critics, almost all
of whom were strong government supporters, and
consulted them on the situation. The Prime Minister
would then have been confronted with a demand for
the release of the robbers with the hostages. Even
if I had put in a reservation, the government could
hardly have stood out against this massive “expert
opinion’”. The release .of the bank robbers on these
premises, two weeks before a general election,
would have been political suicide.







© 2002 Nils Bejerots Minnesfond