Mardi Gras is usually a week for celebration in Europe. The streets of cities are filled with carnival parades, parties and masked revelers celebrating the advent of Lent and the run up to Easter, the most important event in the Christian calender.
But this week, the mood across the continent is jittery, wary and angry, after a Danish film director and a Jewish volunteer guard were shot dead in the space of a few hours in Copenhagen over the weekend in a terrorist attack. Five police officers were also wounded.
The shooting cast new scrutiny on the usually festive carnival celebrations that are planned this week. Organizers in Braunschweig, a city in northern Germany, cancelled a carnival parade on Sunday after obtaining credible information about a planned terrorist attack. In nearby Cologne, one float in that city's carnival parade was banned amid fears it could provoke a terrorist backlash.
Tensions mounted after Danish police early Sunday shot and killed a 22-year-old man at an apartment block near a Copenhagen train station. On Monday morning, Danish authorities arrested two more men in connection with the attacks, which left two dead. The two men arrested are to appear before a judge in Copenhagen later today.
Jens Madsen, head of Denmark’s security service, said the gunman killed by police may have been “inspired by militant Islamist propaganda issued by Islamist State and other terror organizations.” But he said there was no concrete evidence that he had traveled to Syria or the Middle East.
Denmark was one of the first countries to draw the ire of violent Islamists ten years ago, when a satirical magazine published cartoons of Mohammed that sparked protests across the Middle East.
But the country’s satirists have been undeterred.
Swedish artist Lars Vilks, an illustrator who has drawn cartoons of the prophet Mohammed, was speaking on art and free speech on Saturday afternoon when shooting broke out at the Krudttønden cafe in the central Østerbro district of Copenhagen.
Mr. Vilks later said he thought he was a target of the attacker, who fled in a small car. Mr. Vilks had arrived with his own bodyguards, and security at the event was tight. People were searched as they went into the café, and there was a visible police presence.
The carnival parades are often wild, with an anti-establishment tone.
A gunman outside the café opened fire, killing a film director, Finn Nørgaard, who had stepped outside the café for a moment, and wounding three police officers.
Hours later, at around 1 a.m. on Sunday, the same gunman shot and killed a Jewish man standing guard at a bat mitzvah inside Copenhagen’s main synagogue. Two police officers were also shot.
The shootings came just over five weeks after Islamic terrorists killed 17 people in attacks on French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and a Jewish delicatessen in Paris.
The Paris killings reignited debate in Europe about free speech, democracy and the limits of political satire.
In Germany, where anti-Islamic groups have been holding weekly rallies on some towns, the focus turned Monday to the Carnival parades traditionally held this week. The parades are often wild, with an anti-establishment tone. In some cities, floats bearing effigies of public figures travel the route, ridden by organizers who fling sweets to the crowd.
Police cancelled a parade planned for the northern town of Braunschweig at the last minute on Sunday, as they believed there was a serious threat of Islamist attack. The event was cancelled 90 minutes before it was to begin.
The town’s mayor, Ulrich Markurth called it a “sad day for our democratic society,” but community leaders were quick to say the cancellation should not be used as an excuse to support the far right.
A spokesman for the Islamic Community of Braunschweig said he was saddened by the cancellation, and condemned Islamist extremism.
The town’s bishop Christoph Neyns also released a statement saying Islamist terrorism “threatens our vision of a peaceful co-existence of all people in our religion” and said the cancellation in Braunschweig should not provide “grounds for anti-Islamic sentiments and xenophobic propaganda.”
In Cologne, organizers of the Rose Monday parade were criticized after they decided to withdraw a Charlie Hebdo-themed float that reminded revelers of the deadly attacks on the French satirical magazine.
The Charlie Hebdo float was one chosen through a Facebook vote. The organisers offered up 14 models, and the public voted on the one that showed a jester with a red nose, jamming the rifle of a would-be terrorist with colored pencils.
There had been no official threat in Cologne about the float. The Carnival organisers decided on Wednesday to withdraw the float, as they worried it would “restrict the freedom and lightheartedness of Carnival.”
The move was criticized within Germany. North Rhine-Westphalia Minister for Justice Thomas Kutschtaty said that modifying behavior because of fear of terror attacks would mean the terrorists had won.
The organizers admitted later they had made a mistake in revealing the existence of the float and withdrawing it.
Organizers of other parades stuck by their plans.
In Wiesbaden near Frankfurt, a float of a jester rolled through the town on Sunday, arms held up in victory, sitting on a comedy cannon.
Carnival was still on.
Meera Selva is an editor with Handelsblatt Global Edition and has covered security issues and terrorism in Britain, Africa and Berlin. To contact the author: [email protected]