A shooting leaves a nation in shock

Edition 19 April 2019, by Johannes Visser

On Monday 18 March, the Netherlands went through a day of physical and psychological terror. A man shot several people in a Utrecht tram, killing four and injuring another four, then fled the scene. The whole day, the country was gripped by the shooting and the manhunt that ensued, wondering if there was more to come.

The incident took place at around 10.45 AM, at the 24 October Square in the highly multicultural neighborhood Kanaleneiland. Witnesses claimed to have heard several shots and one of them reported that ‘a man started shooting at random’. Shortly after the shooting, the police announced that they were looking for a 37-year-old man in connection with the shooting, mentioning just one perpetrator, although the possibility of other suspects was not excluded.

Emergency services arrived en masse at the scene after the attack. A reporter on site said he had seen one of the victims covered with a sheet on the track between two tram carriages. A short distance away, heavily armed police units entered a house on the Trumanlaan. The University Medical Centre Utrecht opened an emergency hospital, equipped to handle large numbers of victims in case of serious incidents.

Rutte: catch the killer

During a hastily called press conference that afternoon, Prime Minister Mark Rutte stated that all efforts were focused on catching the culprit: “Our thoughts are with the victims and relatives whose lives have suddenly been turned upside down. We are doing everything we can to catch the perpetrator. Should it indeed prove to be a terrorist act, there is only one answer: we will not give way to intolerance. Never. Our democracy is stronger than violence.”

Since so much was unknown about the attacker still on the run, the authorities took no risk and effectively shut down the city. All schools and universities had to close their doors and keep their students inside. All mosques, theaters and cinemas in Utrecht were also closed as a precaution. The mayor of Utrecht, Jan van Zanen, advised all residents to stay indoors, stating: “We cannot exclude more incidents.”

The National Railways (NS) also took ‘visible and invisible’ security measures at and around Utrecht Central Station, while the police were on alert at all exit roads from Utrecht to the south of the country. Airports and other ‘vital infrastructure’ were also put on high alert and the threat level in the Utrecht province was scaled up to 5, the highest level. Almost all political parties suspended their campaigns for the provincial elections two days later.

Unstable criminal with jihadi tendencies

Late afternoon, many sighed with relief when the suspect was finally arrested. Two others were also arrested, but were released later and are no longer considered suspects, according to the Public Prosecution Service (OM). The OM also reported that there was no relation between the suspect, Turkish-born Gökmen T., and his victims. The police were ‘seriously considering’ a terrorist motive, also because of a note found in the van that the suspect had used.

But as a more complete profile of the attacker emerged in the following days, the picture became more complex than just terrorism. Gökmen T. has a long history of petty and heavier crime. He was previously convicted of illegal possession of weapons, burglary and shoplifting. And at the beginning of March, he was in court charged with rape. Friends and acquaintances describe him as unstable and aggressive, a drug addict, psychopath and loner. Periods of drug abuse alternated with clean periods when he’d turn into a religious extremist. The OM is investigating whether Gökmen T. acted from a terrorist motive only, or because of ‘personal problems combined with radicalized ideas’.

A nation left in shock

As peace settled in again the days after, the Dutch were still in shock. Many visited the 24 October Square and left behind a sea of flowers, drawings and other expressions of support for the victims. A memorial was set up at the square. On Thursday afternoon, King Willem-Alexander and Queen Máxima visited the Utrecht emergency workers to talk about their experiences. One day later, a silent march from the Utrecht train station to the site of the shooting was attended by thousands of people from across the country, as well as a large fan base from Utrecht Football Club.

What remains of that eventful day is the intense grief of those that were affected directly, as well as an ugly scar in the collective memory of the Dutch people.