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Swiss reeling from month of disasters

The recent shooting in Zug's cantonal parliament will leave scars on Switzerland's democratic traditions Keystone Archive

For the Swiss, the past month has been one of the darkest in living memory, with the bloodbath in Zug, the collapse of Swissair, and the Gotthard tunnel fire.

This content was published on October 26, 2001 - 23:47

Like the rest of the world, Switzerland was trying to come to terms with the September 11 attacks in the United States, when catastrophe struck closer to home.

A gunman with a grudge stormed the cantonal parliament in Zug, killing 14 people before turning the gun on himself.

Days later, Swissair spectacularly collapsed, leaving nearly 40,000 passengers stranded around the world. And no sooner had the government brokered a bailout plan for the airline industry, when an accident in the Gotthard tunnel killed 11 people, and crippled the country's main north-south traffic axis.

Impact on psyche

These events have had such a profound impact on the Swiss psyche that even the United States air strikes in Afghanistan have been pushed out of the headlines.

An editorial in the French-language daily, Le Temps, summed up the mood: "For those affected by these dramas, each is unique and incalculable. But for those who are not caught up in them, they constitute something bigger, and we struggle to make sense of it all."

"The catastrophic fire in the Gotthard tunnel is another blow to how the Swiss see themselves," wrote commentator Christof Wamister in the Basler Zeitung.

He said these disasters were unrelated "but they fit into the sense of catastrophe that reigns at the moment and, above all, demonstrate that this 'special case', this exemplary country, has had a rude awakening."

Switzerland enjoys the reputation of being an orderly country, where the trains run on time, crime is low, companies are efficient and profitable, and cabinet ministers can be seen taking the train to work.

But now many in Switzerland and abroad are being forced to question those assumptions.

Zug shooting

The first rude awakening came on September 27, when Friedrich Leibacher, a 57-year-old with a history of mental illness, walked into the cantonal parliament in the sleepy town of Zug disguised as a policemen and shot dead 15 people, including himself and three cantonal ministers, and wounded 15 others. It was the worst mass killing in Swiss history.

Beyond the immediate horror, the Swiss were forced to question the level of security granted to government buildings and politicians. A number of cabinet ministers said they were against tighter security and wanted to retain the close ties between the people and their elected representatives.

Even so, the federal parliament and a number of cantons immediately stepped up security. Others drew up lists of potentially dangerous people, a move that could threaten Switzerland's strong data protection laws.

The Zug massacre also provoked a debate on whether it was still justified for almost half a million men to keep army-issue guns at home. For now, the Defence Ministry says it sees no reason to alter a system that requires men over the age of 20 to be ready for military action at a moment's notice.

Swissair bankrupt

On the heels of this human tragedy came national humiliation. Swissair, the epitome of Swiss excellence and business efficiency, and a powerful symbol of Switzerland abroad, announced on October 1 that it was technically bankrupt.

Over the next two days, the entire Swissair fleet was grounded. The company simply did not have enough funds to pay for fuel and landing taxes. Thousands of passengers were stranded, their tickets no longer valid.

"It was not the way they expected to be treated by Switzerland," said Johannes Matyassy, director of Presence Switzerland, the government body in charge of promoting the country's image abroad.

"We managed the crisis badly," he told swissinfo.

Notions of Swiss business probity disappeared out of the window as the truth emerged of an over-ambitious expansion strategy and of warnings of impending meltdown that went unheeded.

Now, thousands will lose their jobs and the government's planned budget surplus has been wiped out by its attempt to salvage something from the debacle.

More misery

But that was not the end of this catalogue of disaster. The accident in the Gotthard tunnel - regarded by many as a disaster waiting to happen - has heaped more misery on a stunned nation.

A marvel of Swiss civil engineering has been shown to be a death trap, the idyllic Alps a scene of carnage.

The main north-south artery not just for Switzerland, but for much of Europe has been closed, probably for several months, by a raging inferno, the death toll from which might not be known for days.

The accident, the worst ever in a tunnel in Switzerland, raises questions about the wisdom of continuing to use long single-bore tunnels and of transporting so much freight not only on the roads, but also through the fragile alpine environment.

It will take many months, if not years, for the dust to settle from these three tragedies. Only time will tell if they alter the way the Swiss view their land.

by Roy Probert

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