After the Massacre, Norway Reexamines Its Values and Fears

The Norwegian Prime Minister's office that was badly damaged in a terrorist bomb attack in central Oslo on 22nd July 2011. Espen Rasmussen / Panos

Not long ago, I received a letter from Norway’s minister of education. She told me to be calm, honest, and to “listen to my child’s thoughts.” The letter was sent by way of the preschool where my 1-year-old daughter is about to start. In gentle tones, the minister advised me on “how to talk with the smallest ones” about what recently befell us.

Throughout my life, calamity in Norway has been weather-related. An oil rig tipped over in the ’80s; a ferry sank in the ’90s; rivers flooded valleys; tempests hurled people into the sea.

On the eve of July 22, we were cautioned to clean our drains and gutters—heavy rain was expected, and so, dutifully, we cleared our eaves of leaves and pine needles. But what we thought was the clap of thunder was instead a Volkswagen van exploding in downtown Oslo, outside the entrance to the prime minister’s office.

“So it has finally come to us,” we told each other. After all, we have troops in Afghanistan; we’ve dropped bombs over Libya, and we’ve printed the so-called Muhammad cartoons. But this wasn’t Al Qaeda or Al-Shabab. This was a homegrown monster—a blond young man from a privileged background who, I realized, had lived a few blocks away. We shopped in the same streets, belonged to the same gym, and shared the same parish church.

High on drugs and dressed as a policeman, Anders Behring Breivik drove west from the ruins of downtown Oslo, arriving at the island of Utøya, where the youth wing of the Labor Party had gathered for its annual summer camp. The Youth League had fought for more liberal policies on immigration, and Breivik considered them among “The Traitors.” His final goal was to cleanse Europe of Islam; Muslims, he believed, should convert, be deported, or face death.

Once on the island, he began assassinating the young politicians in cold blood, shouting “Hurray!” “Bull’s-eye!” or “Got you!” as he slew his victims, most of them teenagers. Breivik hoped that his actions would inspire others. In a 1,500-page manifesto that was later discovered, he claimed that The War must start by targeting The Traitors. “When a pipe in your bathroom springs a leak and the water is flooding, what do you do? You go to the source, you don’t mop up until you have fixed the actual leak. Our regime is the leak, the Muslims the water.”

The attacks, which cost the lives of 77 people, sent shock waves through Norway. The beloved King Harald V cried openly on TV, telling an audience, “Freedom will conquer fear.” But for weeks, there was room only for mourning. A national poem, oft-recited during this time, summed it up. “We are so few in this country/Every fallen is a brother or friend.”

“The attack was a wake-up call,” Karoline Bank, a political-science student who was among the survivors, told me after the massacre. “It’s like, wow, we actually have to defend our democracy. Someone wants to destroy it. We took it for granted, never thought it was something we had to fight for. Friends of mine who were never interested in politics suddenly want to participate.”

The attack came as political parties were preparing for local elections, which are scheduled for Sept. 12. But rather than feed into overheated barnstorming rhetoric or prompt electoral grandstanding among the candidates, political campaigning was instead suspended, with parties carefully considering the tone of their election material. The Youth League of the Conservative Party, for example, withdrew its “Better Dead Than Red” election flier.

Clearly, Norwegians headed for the polls are going to ask themselves, what kind of society do they want to live in? For some, the attack may have changed their answer. But both sides of the political spectrum believe that an important battle for Norway’s soul has just begun. “I want these elections to have a record-high attendance,” says Bank, who lost 26 friends in the attack. “This is not the time for indifference.”

Siv Jensen, leader of the anti-immigrant Progressive Party, for one, was clearly annoyed by the wave of sympathy floating leftward. When I went to see her at her parliamentary office, neither her tan, sun-bleached hair nor her bright violet dress could hide her irritation. “Everything was there for the Labor Party to have a tough time in this election—then this massacre happened,” she said, bemoaning that Breivik, a member of her party until 2006, has been such a spoiler. (Breivik posted more than a hundred comments on the website for the Progressive Party’s youth chapter, and several of the party’s leading figures remembered him from social and political events.)

Immigration, integration, and Islamization were Breivik’s three evils. But not his alone. A poll earlier this year showed that one in two Norwegians wanted to halt all immigration—a sentiment that has fueled the political fortunes of the Progressive Party, which currently holds 41 of 169 seats in Parliament. More than half of those polled expressed belief that the integration had failed, and more than eight out of 10 believed immigrants themselves were to blame.

What has given rise to Norway’s increasing xenophobia is somewhat of a puzzle. There has been no Islamic terror in Norway—a picture that also fits the rest of increasingly immigrant-skeptic Europe. Europol, the European organization for police cooperation, recently presented its yearly report on terrorism. The findings? Of 249 terror acts committed within the European Union’s boundaries last year, only three attacks could be attributed to Islamist groups.

In sheer numbers, Norway has few immigrants—and less than 4 percent of the population identify themselves as Muslim. Still, certain areas have become dominated by nonnative Norwegians, and the media has focused on the fact that there is a higher instance of violence and crime committed by immigrants. According to Norwegian police, all rapes committed on the streets of Oslo last year were committed by immigrants, and there are more immigrants than Norwegians among the prison population.

“Covert, creeping Islamization” an expression coined by Jensen, has been at the center of the debate for the last two years. But the powerful party boss now worries that Breivik’s massacre will lead to political correctness in Norway. “I fear that the debate will be less open, that opinions will be repressed,” she says. Paradoxically, she was the only politician to shut down her party’s website after the attacks—“a pause in the debate,” she called it. Her critics, though, pointed out the venomous nature of the comments posted: “Let’s hope the victims are pro-immigrant socialists” was one comment posted before it was closed down.

Marte Michelet, a leading newspaper columnist for the Dagbladet daily, lives in a central Oslo neighborhood known as Grønland, where shop signs in Urdu and Arabic proliferate and ethnic Norwegian children are a minority in the primary school. Michelet, who is seven months pregnant, now and again reaches out for her fiancé’s hand, as if to convince herself—yet again—that he’s actually there. On July 22, her Iranian-born fiancé, Ali Esbati, who works for the left-wing think tank Manifest, was giving a lecture at Utøya on the extreme political right in Scandinavia; he was well into his speech when the heart of Oslo was struck by Breivik’s bomb. For hours afterward, she didn’t know Esbati’s whereabouts as his phone went dead in the waters off the island. At some point during Breivik’s killing spree, Esbati came face to face with the killer. Esbati turned and ran into the water, expecting to feel the pain of being shot in the back. But the bullets missed him. When he turned, he saw the corpse of the girl who had been standing beside him. “Finally, people realize that Islamophobia exists,” says Esbati on this afternoon. “There is a hope that we now see the contours of a new we—not just us and them.”

Michelet herself has received several threats over the years. She’s been called a traitor and told that her “hour of reckoning” will soon arrive. The threats frightened her, but until the July attack, she didn’t really think they were real. Now she is acutely aware of those in “the Islamophobic subculture” who express a desire for a violent confrontation. “The anti-immigration discourse has hardened over the last 10 years,” she says. “This is not just a Norwegian phenomenon, but is happening all over Europe ... And now we also have Breivik, our first contra-jihadist terrorist.”

One of the last pieces that Michelet wrote before the attack was titled “When It All Becomes Personal” and described her concern about the xenophobic society her first child would be born into. But she has since become more hopeful and senses a new feeling of togetherness. “Many have experienced the reaction to the terror as one huge ‘group hug.’ Members of ethnic minorities have felt a new kind of safety and sense of belonging,” she says. “Seeing the prime minister surrounded by Somali men lowering a coffin into the ground sends a strong signal: these Norwegians might not hate us after all.”

On the other side of town, in a quiet brasserie near the Royal Garden, the thought of some collective “group hug” inspires revulsion in Hans Rustad, the founder of the rightwing site, Breivik, who came to the group’s meetings, often posted comments on the site.

“I remember him well,” says Rustad, who is all dressed in white. “He was a talker, he spoke long and loudly—mainly bluster.” Other attendees describe Breivik as “a focused note taker.”

Rustad, for his part, is dismayed by official Norway’s reaction to the attacks. “Meeting terror with roses and love ...” he says, bitingly. “Crown Prince Haakon announced that the streets of Oslo were filled with love. What is this? Woodstock? Flower Power? Feel my pain! We go through the same pile of victims’ stories over and over again. How many memorial ceremonies can we handle?” He knocks his glass of water onto the table, when I mention the debate over what has been described as covert Islamization. “It is not even covert! There are demands for prayer calls, no pork in kindergartens, nurses in veils, halal meals in prisons, and Muslims in elderly homes demanding to be ritually washed five times a day. It’s all in the open!”

Like Breivik, he is concerned about Norway losing its Christian identity. “The deputy police chief of Oslo called Breivik a Christian fundamentalist. That policeman is pissing on his own God,” Rustad says, hotly. “A witch hunt against dissenting opinions has started. Hatred is bound to explode if people can’t speak out against this utopia of multiculturalism.” On whether he somehow helped create Breivik’s mindset, he adds without prompting: “No, I don’t want to play the game of mea culpa.”

A few days later, in a house near the brasserie, a father clears the dining table while his wife and son continue their conversation. The father empties the dishwasher, carefully placing clean dishes in appropriate cupboards, and then covers the remains of the meal with cling wrap. “Just leave the rest to me,” his wife says, amicably, as she gets up. Her husband is the prime minister of Norway. In the days after the attack that destroyed his regular office, his staff—some still wearing bloodied clothes and bandages—convened here at his private residence, turning it into emergency government headquarters, covering coffee tables with laptops, files, and phones.

“We will meet this attack with more democracy, more openness, more humanity,” Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg said in the hours after the attack, signaling that he wasn’t interested in revenge and wouldn’t allow the massacre to be used to settle scores—real or perceived.

Stoltenberg knew several of the victims personally. He had met them at party meetings and enjoyed following the budding politicians. On the evening of July 22, Stoltenberg went to the place where the unharmed, the wounded, and the dead were brought over from the island. Some parents were reunited with their children, others not. “I was with parents whose child did not come on the first bus, not on the second, nor the ones after,” he says, taking a breath. “Then there were no more buses. Everybody gathered around the next hope—the lists that came in from the hospitals.” He still remembers the expression of relief in the faces of parents when they heard “Your child is severely injured” because it meant that at least they weren’t dead. “Late at night, a couple I know well was still waiting for their 14-year-old daughter. In the end, only one unconscious patient remained unidentified at a small, local hospital ... When a scar on her neck was described, my friend’s wife knew it was their daughter. I embraced her and said, ‘That’s great.’ As I pronounced the words, I looked into the eyes of a mother right next to me. Her last hope was gone. Those eyes. It was the antechamber of Hell.”

Until 2008, Stoltenberg and his wife, Ingrid, lived, like others in their position before them, in their regular home. Jens, as he is known among the Norwegians, commuted to Parliament by bike or tram and was without security on weekends and holidays. The gray van carrying the bomb could drive right up to the entrance of the government offices, as they are never cordoned off from the public. When I ask him what may change as a result of the attacks in terms of police security, Stoltenberg allows that new security measures may be unveiled. Already, police budgets have been increased. “But let us not forget, we are still among the safest countries in the world,” he says, adding that people should recall that, although much attention has been dedicated to the threat of terror done in the name of Islam, “all political violence in Norway so far has been executed by far-right groups and loonies.”

So what awaits Norway in the coming years? What kind of society will Norwegians live in? The prime minister is, true to form, hopeful. “Something good can grow from the experience of evil, a desire to show compassion. Community and friendship get a deeper meaning. The understanding of multiculturalism has been strengthened; the faith in Norway’s values has been strengthened,” he says. “I think more young people will commit themselves—not just by carrying roses in the street, but at the voting booths. Oppressing opinions is dangerous; we need to accept that there are extreme views out there, too. They cannot be silenced to death, but debated to death.”

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