Of course the atrocious terrorist attack shocked Norway. But the biggest shock to the world may be that it isn’t changing Norway.
If there was really ever such a thing as a hard rain falling, it fits the description of the rain that has pounded down on Oslo ever since the terror attack last Friday. Every now and then the sound of thunder morbidly replicates the bomb explosion heard all over Oslo and beyond two days ago. It’s as if nature is telling us to stay inside, remain glued to our computers and tv sets. Demanding that we continue connecting the dots, in what seems as an endless pursuit of a valid explanation.
It reminds me of the aftermath of September 11. I worked at the Norwegian Embassy in Washington, D.C. and even as a foreigner felt haunted by the horror of the events and the question marks they left. The quest for answers led me to the same numbing media consumption I am experiencing these days. Watching the same sound bytes and images over and over. The somewhat desperate attempt at reading all the relevant hash tagged Tweets, searching for an angle that would give extra information, extra perspective, extra comfort.
The typical step a society takes after a terrorist attack is towards stricter security measures. It happened after 9/11 and has continued to happen in the US in the decade that is soon to have passed. Obviously, as a symbol of Western civilisation the US is a more prominent terrorist target, and concise parallels are difficult to draw. However, Norway has surprised foreign observers I have spoken to, and maybe even ourselves, in that we instead have managed to take a step back. Through careful reflection proving that there are other ways of maintaining order than merely through more rules and regulations. That increasing the social trust, in a society that already enjoys amongst the highest levels of social trust in the world, is a more rewarding option.
The attacker identified himself as a Christian, conservative, anti-Islam nationalist. Although his methods fortunately were unique, his alarmist diagnosis of the threats of multiculturalism are more common, even in Norway, than we like to admit. However, instead of retaliating politically, legally or simply through moral finger-pointing towards groups and individuals harbouring these beliefs, the Norwegian government has retaliated with more democracy.
Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg has stated clearly that the terror will be met with more democracy and more openness. Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Støre has made clear that tomorrow’s Norway will be fully recognisable. Not only have these phrases been repeated. They have been implemented. The city centre was quickly reopened. Norwegian politicians and the Royal Family have spent the last days meeting with large crowds of people, with limited security, always at a discreet distance.
Even more interesting, perhaps, there hasn’t even been a public outcry for more security for the politicians to address. No opposition politicians, not even social media voices, have demanded more public security or pointed to the lack thereof as potential discouragements to the attacks. There has been no visible debate on gun laws or even on the sale of fertilizer, used by the attacker. Neither has there been calls for stricter legal punishment, Norway has 21 years as its maximum prison sentence. The limits to rhetoric in public debates have not been addressed. Norwegian terrorism expert Tore Bjørgo explained in an interview that more extensive computer surveillance could possibly have detected the attacker’s plans. But quickly added: «Although this is obviously a level of monitoring the Norwegian people would not agree to.»
In his speech at 15 year commemoration of the Oklahoma bombing, former president Bill Clinton addressed how politicians’ and political commentators’ words enter into «an echo chamber that travels through space and falls on the connected and unhinged alike». He was subsequently criticized by some Republicans of tampering with their freedom of speech, and although Clinton’s warning may be a fair one, it is not likely to gain support in Norway these days. As a young Labour politician said on Twitter: «Bring the attacker’s political ideas to the table, and we will debate them to death».
The first aid kit for social renewal has been commonly accepted as more openness, more democratic involvement, more transparency, less speculative rhetoric, less suspicion. Everything the attacker opposed. This seems bound to prevail through the local elections this fall. It is true that the Norwegian Progress Party has harboured far right tendencies in the past; many were not surprised to learn that the attacker was a former party member. However, of recent years, the party seems to display a less emotional and more pr-polished, strategic approach towards anti-immigration issues. The occasional fishing trip in the muddier parts of these waters seems unlikely to occur in the coming elections. How could it? Anti-Islam extremism has just proven a deadlier threat to Norwegian society that Islam extremism. As someone wrote on Twitter: «Seems we have more to fear from the fear of multiculturalism, than from multiculturalism itself.»
The lessons of the Arab Spring taught many on the Norwegian far right that the intentions of the vast amount of the Muslim population were not an Islamic Sharia state after all, but merely democracy. The very freedoms that formed the background for most of our domestic Muslims’ will to emigrate in the first place. Sadly, this became evident too late in the attacker’s nine-year planning process. And surely long after any political analysis had been clouded by hate. His vast library, lengthy manifesto and widespread political references cannot hide that fact that his words didn’t add up. When all analysis evaporated, the majority of his political opponents were simply and banally labelled Marxists.
Norway’s long history of occupation, last during WW2, may still affect our mindset of staying calm and carrying on. In 1940, the Norwegian poet Nordahl Grieg wrote: «We are so few in this country. Every fallen is a brother or a friend.» This rings true today, when a generation of youth politicians have been targeted. A whole nation is dreading the publication of the list of deceased. As Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg put it immediately after the attacks: «A political youth camp is perhaps one of the finest features of a democracy».
The target couldn’t have been more vicious, young people just becoming aware of the ways of democracy and citizenship, many not even able to vote, staking out the part they were to play in shaping the nation’s future. In Norway, youth politicians matter. They fill our parliament and prominent minister postings. When I as a diplomat accompanied American journalists to Norway, they were all struck by the level of influence young people enjoy in Norwegian society.
Surprising for many, even the media have kept their cool. While foreign media erupted in Islamic terror speculation (The Sun had «Al Qaida attack» on their front page, even News York Times elaborated lengthy on these suspicions). Norwegian media, in most part, waited patiently for all the pieces to emerge. In social media, people are taking responsibility, calling for everyone to pause and make sure that we are talking with each other in a way that heals, not a way that wounds.
Maybe the whole media and public debate would have been different if Norway was attacked by Islamists? Then again, being attacking by a blonde, blue-eyed native we could have unsuspiciously grown up along side, seems just as chilling. And in the end, we know that none of us can say with any certainty what might have stopped the bomb from exploding and those shots from being fired. Or explain the thoughts lurking in the inner recesses of the attacker’s mind.
As a consequence, Norway has reason to pride itself with its swift return to normality. And keeping calm, not even fearing fear itself.