Why you should care
Because anti-immigrant sentiment can be deadly.
As David Gebremariam walked through Stockholm’s leafy, park-lined Troppstigen neighborhood early one summer evening in 1991, the Eritrean refugee and student’s dark skin stood out from that of his mostly white Swedish counterparts. When Gebremariam happened to glance down, he noticed a red light floating against his body. As he turned to see where the light was coming from, a shot rang out and pain ripped through his right hip.
Police suspected that the shooter had used a rifle with a laser sight, but they had no motive or leads. Terrified residents, convinced that they had seen red lights floating around the neighborhood, responded by not letting their kids go outside to play. But without any developments, the story quickly fell from the headlines, giving way to news about the upcoming parliamentary elections in September.
How long before our Swedish children have to turn their heads towards Mecca?
Earlier in the year, Bert Karlsson and Ian Wachtmeister, two well-known Swedes, had emerged on the political scene, pushing their conservative populism and New Democracy party, which many Swedes embraced with enthusiasm. The party started off wanting lower taxes, says Ulf Hannerz, professor emeritus of social anthropology at Stockholm University. But as the party became increasingly disorganized, “they became more clearly xenophobic,” Hannerz says, noting how Karlsson and Wachtmeister played on resentment and fear in a bid to win votes.
By the early 1990s, many Swedes had begun to fear that their borders were too open. Since the 1970s, refugees had been arriving from Iraq, Somalia, Chile and Kurdistan, and the New Democracy party offered a response to fears that the country might lose its typically Swedish “look.” Its first party plan called for all immigrants to be tested for AIDS, and while that idea was dropped for being too controversial, the xenophobic sentiment remained. “How long before our Swedish children have to turn their heads towards Mecca?” one party supporter infamously asked at a rally. Party Vice Chairman John Bouvin railed against aid to foreign countries, claiming it led to overpopulation, and said many outrageous things that he claimed Swedes were thinking but were too polite to say.
“There was a strong anti-immigrant opinion,” says Jerzy Sarnecki, professor of criminology at Stockholm University, and some people were “powerfully influenced by the propaganda” the party was peddling. At the end of October, a month after the New Democracy party received 6.7 percent of the popular vote, the terror began. An Iranian student was targeted, then a homeless Greek man; shortly after, a Brazilian musician was shot. Then, on November 8, Iranian student Jimmy Ranjbar was shot in the head at close range and died from his injuries.
Serial killers are rare in Sweden, but there was no denying this was a spree. In 1991, police reported a total of 91 murders and 132 assaults resulting in death. Three attempted murders and one murder in two weeks — with all of the victims appearing to be foreign-born and all but one having seen a red light immediately prior to being shot — could mean only one thing: A serial murderer was on the loose. The police and media dubbed the killer “Laserman,” for the laser sight he used, and a manhunt commenced.
Police had a description from a witness who thought she had seen the killer — a man with dyed red hair and blue eyes who dressed like a yuppie. They weren’t sure how accurate the description was, but they had little to go on and needed help from the public. A sketch of the suspect was released on November 14, and the media reported on how scared immigrants and second-generation Swedes were in Stockholm. Fearing the Laserman and the rising tide of racism nationwide, they didn’t want to leave their homes or show their faces on TV.
As the holidays approached, there were no new victims. Authorities began to hope that the terror had ended. But in January 1992, three more immigrants were shot with a different weapon. Police thought the attacks might have been committed by the same perpetrator, and they started developing a criminal profile. They also followed the only lead they had: A white Nissan Micra had been seen at a few of the crime scenes. It was hard to track because it had stolen plates, but when authorities looked at records of rented Nissan Micras, they came across the name John Ausonius. Ausonius’ rap sheet made him their first person of interest; as time passed, police became more certain that Ausonius was their killer, even though no new crimes were committed.
It wasn’t until June 1992 that authorities finally nabbed Ausonius during an attempted bank robbery. He denied any wrongdoing in court and employed a curious psychology to account for his xenophobic violence: He believed that general support for the racist right-wing party would translate into support for him and his actions. Curiously enough, Ausonius himself had an immigrant background. Born Wolfgang Zaugg to German and Swiss parents, the dark-haired Ausonius was teased as a child for his darker complexion. Perhaps, some analysts speculated, his murderous spree stemmed from a desire to be accepted as a “real” Swede.
“Ausonius understood the New Democracy party to be saying that if it was better for the children in Africa to die, that means that he should shoot and kill Black Swedes today,” journalist Gellert Tamas told Radio Sweden in a 2005 interview. Tamas’ book The Laserman: A Tale About Sweden examines the culture in Sweden in the early 1990s and how racism and anti-immigrant sentiment served as a backdrop to the Laserman’s rise.
The killer himself — now serving a life sentence — claims his actions were not politically motivated. But Sarnecki believes the New Democracy party’s messages ultimately drove Ausonius to kill. And he fears that it could happen again in the current increasingly xenophobic environment. “A similar mood exists in society today, and the risk exists that people who are affected [by this kind of propaganda] in the same way can emerge,” he warns.