The Netherlands Tolerance Finally Finds Its Limits

After years of permissiveness, the Dutch wonder if they have gone too far

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Ed van Thijn considers himself a tolerant man, but he readily admits that he is no longer as broad-minded as he was when he became mayor of Amsterdam in 1983. At that time the Dutch city of 700,000 was notorious as the drug capital of Europe, a place where hashish was smoked openly in cafes and dealers peddled their wares with impunity. In the past few years, however, Amsterdam -- and indeed all of Holland -- has begun to question the freewheeling ways that have long characterized Dutch society. From sex to drugs to welfare, the Dutch are increasingly wondering if they have grown too permissive. As Housing and Environment Minister Ed Nijpels puts it, "Have we gone too far?"

Mayor Van Thijn reflects the country's new mood. He has turned tough, albeit reluctantly, cracking down on Amsterdam's drug dealers, rioting squatters and other criminals. Van Thijn, who confesses that, like most of his countrymen, he took a lenient attitude toward drug abuse in the 1970s, now looks back in anger. "In the past 15 years," he says, "tolerance became synonymous with permissiveness, weakheartedness and softness on law-and-order. Today backlash and debate about where Dutch society is going are in the air."

Across the Netherlands, from the busy Rotterdam docks to the gleaming electronics plants of Eindhoven, the Dutch, who have always loved a rousing moralistic argument, are indulging in just that heady passion. The debate, which focuses on the proper balance between freedom and license, is echoed in all the industrialized democracies. In fact, the rates of divorce, juvenile crime and unwed motherhood remain lower in the Netherlands than in most other European countries and the U.S. "Let us remember that we have an open society, a nice, friendly, clean country," says Cees van Lede, president of the Federation of Netherlands Industry. Nonetheless, the discussion has taken on a special urgency in the Netherlands, which has long enjoyed a reputation for social experiment and enlightened attitudes, as well as unorthodox solutions. As a result, the Dutch stir up controversy when they argue, drawing worldwide attention to their social ills.

Street crime is producing the strongest backlash. The problem is not murder and armed robbery but a wave of thievery and vandalism, much of it committed by drug addicts and squatters. In Rotterdam, theft has increased from 8,000 cases a year in 1960 to 64,000 in 1986. Radical "proletarian shoppers" help themselves to supermarket goods, frequently with impunity. Even Christian Democratic Prime Minister Ruud Lubbers, who presides over a center-right coalition government, has been touched by crime. Twice within the past year, Lubbers has chased down men who broke into his wife's car and held them until the police arrived.

The turning point may have come in January, when hundreds of krakers (militant squatters) occupied a seven-story building and a bank in the southeastern city of Nijmegen. The squatters battled police for the better part of a day, injuring 19 officers and causing $2 million in damage. The country was shocked by the realization that for several hours it was the krakers, not the authorities, who controlled the downtown of a major city. In the ensuing wave of indignation, politicians clamored for new laws against squatting.

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