One night back in the summer of 1990, I traveled by train from Munich to Berlin. The Wall had come down, in the sense that the borders between East and West could now be crossed at will, even though the two Germanys had yet to become one and the actual physical Wall itself was still largely intact. (In Berlin, I would find natives and tourists alike busily chopping away at it.) When, in the dead of night, the train stopped at a dilapidated, seemingly deserted station somewhere in the East, there appeared on the platform an aging, grim-faced woman, dressed in an extremely shabby military (or military-style) uniform and holding a clipboard, who, making her way along the length of the train, meticulously copied down the numbers on the sides of the carriages, performing a task that, I suspected, she had been carrying out for years, most likely decades, as a compliant tool of the totalitarian state. Her efforts were now utterly pointless, but she had plainly not been issued new orders, and so here she was, at the dawn of a new era, still robotically going through her Soviet-era motions.
I was reminded of that woman the other day when I saw the photograph (which by now, I gather, has been pretty widely distributed) of another woman, this one calmly writing up parking tickets for the skeletal remains of cars destroyed by the jihadist arsonists in Stockholm. Although this woman, unlike that German frau all those years ago, appeared to be young and slim, and wore a well-fitting, immaculate uniform, she, too, looked every bit the relic of a dying order – a functionary confronted with a new reality, but unprepared to do anything other than mindlessly copy down numbers, just as she had been trained to do. The image seemed to me instantly iconic – succinctly capturing the utter inability of official Europe to confront, and act upon, the horrific reality right before its eyes.