(Guest Blog – Ryan King)
There is a movie called The Purge (2013). The movie is based around a future society that has decided once a year during a twelve-hour period to allow any crime to be committed without fear of prosecution or consequences.
How does this relate to our current life in the Netherlands? The Dutch laws and traditions surrounding New Year’s Eve and fireworks are eerily reminiscent of that film is so many ways.
In order to explain this, I have to paint a bit of a picture. First of all, fireworks are illegal to sell throughout the Netherlands…except on the dates of 28-31 December. Fireworks are illegal to set off throughout the Netherlands…except for the hours between 6 PM on 31 December and 2 AM on 1 January. During that time pretty much anything goes. In a country that has a total population of less than 17 million, the Dutch last year spent more than 70 million euro in this four-day sale period on fireworks. It should also be noted that there is an epidemic of illegal fireworks. These illegal fireworks are much more powerful and dangerous than those sold in stores.
In an effort to curb illegal fireworks sales, the Dutch government recently allowed the legal sale of fireworks more powerful than ever before. The Dutch Army has expressed safety concerns and through tests determined that some of these fireworks have the same explosive power as the hand grenades they use in combat.
During this fireworks-free-for-all, it is typical for youths to roam the streets throwing these powerful fireworks at each other, putting them in mailboxes, or dropping them through front door mail slots.
Last year it even felt to me like the time in the movie before The Purge as I prepared. I locked up and taped down our mailbox. I wrapped a bike lock through our front gate to make it more difficult for anyone to come into our yard. When I took my sons’ friend home in our van that afternoon, the streets were unusually empty and still. Eerie. What few people I did see looked to be in a hurry to get where they were going. The air was smoggy with expectation and tension.
Officials prepare. Emergency rooms staff brace for the onslaught. There have been riots in the past as large groups of drunken men or youths go through the streets throwing fireworks. Illegal bonfires are not uncommon as New Year’s Eve revelers drag old Christmas trees to prominent intersections burning the past holiday up as fuel.
Last year, these firework related festivities resulted in over 13 million euro worth of property damage in the Netherlands…in only eight hours. The previous year during that same time period, over 800 people were arrested and 62 people, a high percentage of them children, permanently lost an eye. This was reportedly an improvement over the previous year which saw 101 people lose an eye. The number was said to be down because of the information campaign in Dutch schools that urges children to use safety goggles when they set off powerful fireworks and throw them at each other.
Of course the U.S. also has its share of fireworks related accidents. In 2014, there were approximately 9,300 emergency room visits related to fireworks. Where the scale of the fireworks mania in the Netherlands comes into play is when you consider fireworks are largely legal year round in the U.S. and the stats are from a population of approximately 320 million.
Last year my wife was in DR Congo as I sat in my house with our four sons and listened to the growing noise outside. I had heard the like before. I have served three combat tours in Afghanistan, two in Kosovo, one in Macedonia and one in Bosnia. The only time I have heard anything like what was going on in our quiet Dutch town was either when I was near a firefight or when our base camp was under attack.
The cacophonies were nearly indistinguishable. They vibrated the windows and caused my dog’s hair to fall out as he cowered trembling under the table. The barrage was constant and hemmed us in on every side. Fireworks were shot at fifteen degree angles from adjacent yards so that they landed in our yard, on the sidewalk, or on the street. Powerful explosions, rockets, and machine gun fire is what I heard outside. Much of it was uncomfortably close.
This was all before midnight. Once the midnight hour fell, all hell broke loose.
Retreating to an upstairs window, we watched as our conservative neighbors gathered in the middle of the street and set off large bundles of fireworks. In some cases they simply lay large paper sacks filled with various types of fireworks on the ground and set the bag on fire with rockets shooting out in all directions. Middle-aged neighbors ran up and down the street firing roman candles at each other and at passing cars that tried to navigate around the large piles of burning trash in the middle of the road.
By 12:15 AM ambulances were coming and going up and down our street with the lights and sirens wailing. Racing police cars were not far behind, and they ignored my neighbors’ burning bags of fireworks, running them over and scattering the lit and unlit contents. The sheer scale of the firework madness is difficult to explain. I have never seen anything like this. My two youngest sons and I watched from their wide bedroom window. They kept asking “Are we safe?” and if our neighbors in the street might die.
Many Dutch safety and health advocates have called for an end to the fireworks free-for-all, but to date politicians have ignored imposing laws on what many see as an ingrained Dutch tradition. Although some Dutch cities have imposed restrictions on fireworks, most do not. The Dutch attitude in practice and politics appears to be one of contemptuous nonchalance and disregard of potential dangers.
What makes this so unexpected is the typical orderly and law-abiding nature of the Dutch. They are extremely conscientious about respecting the property of others and not doing anything to endanger those around them. The same neighbors who carefully raked and swept their yards and the public sidewalk in front of their property in October will set bags on fire in the road and shoot projectiles willy-nilly about the neighborhood come December 31st. Usually, they are considerate, responsible, and practical.
Yet, for eight hours each year they are allowed and even encouraged in the name of tradition to lose their minds when it comes to powerful fireworks. It truly is like The Purge…Dutch style…
Ryan King is an American living in Holland who has authored numerous novels. He is keeping his day job while raising four sons, and hopes to one day own a waterfront home in the US that is a good distance from fireworks displays.