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22 July 2011

2 August 2011

Oslo, 25 July 2011. (Photo taken by Asav. Courtesy of Wikipedia).

For days now I have been thinking about how to write this post. I have read too much about the tragedy of 22 July, learned too much, thought too much. My head is full and now I must unpack it piece by piece in an attempt to form a coherent post, if for no other reason than help me to understand how this could happen in Norway.

I sit in so much disbelief. I stare out the window endlessly, wondering how I – an American old enough to remember the attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan, to have watched the endless news coverage of the horrors of Columbine, Oklahoma City, the Virginia Tech shootings, 9/11 and 7/11 – how could I have been so naïve? Did I really believe that this sort of thing could happen everywhere else, but not here? School shootings in Finland, a prime minister and politician murdered in Sweden, but Norway? Norway was a refuge of sanity and peace, a place where the idea of community – of samfunn – meant something. And while I have openly complained about so many aspects of my life in Norway – the weather, the food, my difficulties with the language and finding friends – I have always washed these away with the firm belief that at least I live in a place where my children are safe.

I have tried to understand the reasons for my naïveté (wishful thinking? my outsider status kept me from truly knowing Norway?), but in the news I have watched and read so many Norwegians express the same sentiment. In an interview with Khamshajiny Gunaratnam, a survivor of the Utøya attacks, CNN’s Diana Magnay says: “This man’s philosophy was all anti-immigrants, you know, anti-Muslim, the most extreme right-wing thinking. How would you describe the Norwegian society that you’ve grown up in. Do you ever notice that kind of sentiment, even if people don’t act on it? That there exists this kind of—-?”

“I’ve never heard of it. Never heard of it,” Gunaratnam responded resolutely.

CNN’s interview with security expert Anthony Roman also revealed something about Norwegian society prior to 22 July. Roman was asked to talk about what could have been done differently, how one man was able to shoot freely for one and a half hours before being apprehended by police. The first problem he mentioned was that the police were not accepting any calls not connected to the bombing in Oslo, so for twenty minutes the panicked phone calls of those on the island were ignored. Another problem involved transportation: the police force in Norway had no helicopter dedicated to transporting forces. The only police helicopter in Oslo was used for surveillance and seated only four people. And on 22 July the crew for this helicopter was on summer holiday. Roman seemed to be drawing a portrait of a very backwards nation, a nation still in its childhood in regards to its comprehension of and response to terrorism.

To Roman’s analysis CNN’s Colleen McEdwards added: “That island perhaps should have been better secured in the first place. You had high-ranking political leaders coming and going there as well.” The undertone of her statement was: Wouldn’t that have been the rational thing to do?

Roman agreed: “Well the island should have been under special attention and special protection, there’s no question about that . . . [the island] would, by any standard of anti-terror or anti-crime, have been considered a high risk target, and therefore should have had better security.” He went on to say that a security guard was on the island, but that he was unarmed and one of the first people killed by Breivik.

All of this sounded a lot to me like: “Gees, Norway. Seriously! Who wouldn’t put armed security forces on an island where the children of politicians were staying for a week? What kind of capital city doesn’t have a rescue helicopter? And the Norwegian police don’t even carry guns?”

And then I started arguing with them, as I sometimes do from the couch.

“But you don’t get it,” I shouted, throwing my hands up in the air. “This is Norway.”

Sånn er det i norge! There are no railings or fences along rocky cliff tops, no concrete edge stopping someone from falling into the sea along Bryggen. People can stop, and even park!, their cars just a few meters from the entrance to the airport. As BBC correspondent Jorn Madslien writes, “This is a society where top politicians, business executives and other celebrities often include their private telephone numbers and home addresses on their business cards.”

You see, in Norway “special protection” translates as rain gear. “Special attention” is what we give when we see slippery rocks on a downward slope. “High risk target” is most likely the lame deer in the woods. And while it must sound incredulous to most of the world that the entire crew of a police surveillance helicopter was on holiday, Norwegians would not blink an eye at this fact. Much of the country shuts down in July so that everyone can enjoy at least some of their five weeks of paid annual holiday. This is the type of society that Norwegians want. Norwegians have chosen to live in an open society instead of behind concrete walls and armed security details. Is this naïveté? Or simply a desire to enjoy life without worrying about all of the bad things that may or may not happen?

In my previous blog post (12 July) I announced that my family would be traveling to Denmark for our summer holiday. A fellow blogger in Denmark who often writes about the anti-immigrant sentiments and policies there warned me in a comment: “Don’t let the racists bite!” That phrase haunts me now.

We have learned a lot in the past week and a half about the racists among us. We are now aware that people in Norway have been spreading hate on the internet for years, people like Breivik, like the blogger Fjordman, like the student at the University of Bergen who recently wrote that he wanted to be Norway’s first terrorist, but that Breivik beat him to it.

No longer can we say, like Khamshajiny Gunaratnam, that we have never heard of this type of thing in Norway. But just as an awareness of the dangers of hiking does not keep us from ascending the rocky cliffs, knowledge of the evil around us should not keep us from living our lives as we did before. Hopefully we will just become better prepared for handling those risks.

13 Comments leave one →
  1. Aven permalink
    2 August 2011 13:58

    Thank you for posting this. I’ve been thinking of you since I first heard the news. And I think I agree–horrific though it is, this act should not be allowed to transform Norway into an image of it’s fear and hatred. While it should make people of Norway think hard about the rhetoric and attitudes surrounding immigration, culture, race etc. there, it shouldn’t make them live their life in fear. That really would be empowering terrorism.

    Love & hugs to you all. xx

    • 3 August 2011 11:48

      Agreed! And I have been saddened and angered to see that, in many ways, people in the U.S. have lost certain freedoms. Terrorists succeed only when they terrorize.

  2. Jan Roar permalink
    2 August 2011 20:05

    Someone said that one of the joys of Norway is to sit on a sidewalk café and see a cabinet minister walk by alone, deep in his/hers own thoughts. This I think sums up much of what Norway is about.

    Security? The best security you can have is an open society, where your neighbor cares for you even though you might not know him. And we will protect this openness. You bet.

    Best regards,
    Jan Roar, Oslo

    • 3 August 2011 11:51

      Thank you for reading and for your comment — what you wrote about sitting at a cafe is exactly what I love about Norway and what I hope so dearly will not change. I am happy to hear that you — and hopefully the majority of Norwegians! — are willing to protect this openness. As I said to Aven above, terrorists only succeed when they terrorize and Norway need not be driven by fear.

  3. 2 August 2011 21:19

    Perhaps because of my relative newness to Norwegian society and lifestyle, I find myself pulled between the American “where the heck were the police/security/helicopters?” kind of response, yet now understanding the defensive “but this is Norway! You don’t understand!” response. It’s one of those intangible things that we moved here for: the open society, looking out for one another. Thanks, Jena. I was looking forward to your thoughts. I know how hard it can be to get it all done with actual words.

    • 3 August 2011 11:54

      Hi Emily. It’s tough, isn’t it — this two culture perspective? And I don’t mean to say that well, because Norwegians want an open society they now have to suffer the consequences of that society. I think that some changes need to be made concerning emergency preparedness, but that those changes should not be driven by fear. The comment by Jan Roar above warmed my heart. I think it is important that we all remember that living in a tight but open community is what we love best about Norway.

  4. 3 August 2011 17:25

    Like you, I’d answer “Sånn er Norge” and I praise Stoltenberg for striving to maintain that, that nothing would change, and that no armored vehicles would be placed in front of the royal palace and that the prime minister & other politicians would be flanked by bodyguards wherever they go.

    It’s no use to get paranoid over things, because things like this could happen everywhere, in the worst places imaginable – and like you I was very shocked that it happened in little Norway. We shall not live in fear, or the terrorists would win.

    As for the police response, dammit – I know the story about the kid who cry wolf, but if not one, but two, three, four and more people calling about the same thing – the police should have their radar ready. But then again, nothing serious ever happened in Norway, but now they were baptized with fire and hopefully they’ll learn from this

    • 5 August 2011 14:46

      I go back and forth on this police thing. Today I was really angry with them. I read in Aftenposten about how a future hopeful for Prime Minister, only 21 yrs old, wrote on his FB page that he was hiding and alive at 6:08 p.m. but we now know that he was shot and killed a few minutes later. So timing — even those 10 minutes they lost while the boat motor stalled — was everything.

  5. Michele permalink
    4 August 2011 21:58

    Excellent post, Jena. You’ve really got me thinking, as usual. You have articulated incredibly well some of the nuances of Norwegian society that so much of the international media has missed and/or can’t understand. And it’s those nuances that make me love this country even more today than I did two weeks ago.

    I have been wondering where to start with my next blog post and you’ve just given me a few good ideas—thank you! Enjoy your holiday in Denmark. I have a feeling you’ll be feeling even more Norwegian than you did two weeks ago. God tur!

    • 5 August 2011 14:48

      Thanks, Michele. And just for clarification — we were in Denmark when the tragedy occurred, so we are home now. I was really eager to be in Norway. It was strange watching it all unfold on Danish TV. And you are right — tragedy has a strange way of bringing about togetherness, even between expats and natives!

  6. 5 August 2011 19:52

    Thank you from Botswana:) Well apprehended the norwegians way of life, and how we love our country just the way it is!

  7. Paul Selig permalink
    8 August 2011 05:17


    I’m writing you from Ballard, WA (aka. Seattle), where we have a huge 17th of May parade every year. We really hold our heads high. I’m proud of my Norwegian heritage & so are the generations of Norwegians that live here. Fellow Norske I know here have been bummed out about the tragedy. If it were to happen in the U.S. it would be sad, but you almost expect it. For insanity like this to hit a country with such strong belief in communal good for all, it’s hard for many to fathom. It seems that there’s a strong belief in the greater good for all of Norway. I think that we’ve lost that here in the States. I’ve become very disillusioned in the last 20 years, with my country of birth. I’ve been casting an eye towards my great great grandmother’s country, because I feel a calling. And guess what: this only reinforces my love of Norway & the indomitable Norwegian spirit. This man is no Norwegian. I think he has negated his claim to being anything but a degenerate. And I would gladly take his citizenship in a heartbeat.
    My heart goes out to all of Norway over this sad madness.


  8. 9 August 2011 17:29

    Well said/written Jena. It took me some time to accept that this had actually happened in Norway. I must say I was one of those ‘it can never happen in Norway’ people. Now that we know it can happen I am sure a few things will change but I hope not too much….

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