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Aslak Bonde

August 2011: A changed Norway

"If one man can cause so much evil, just think how much love we can create together". This quote from a young member of the Labour Party circled the globe in the days after the mass killings and terror of the 22 July, and set the tone for the reaction by the Norwegian society. The warmth and sense of community were similar to what old people remember from the spring of peace in 1945. But autumn is fast approaching in Norway - with an election campaign, soul-searching and difficult weighing of pros and cons.

Aug 16, 2011

A car bomb outside the government buildings was conceivable, but a massacre at a political youth camp? It was quite simply unbelievable. An attack by Al-Qaida, as an active NATO member, was something we could have expected, but that a sophisticated terrorist action from a rather ordinary young man who had grown up in the best part of Oslo's west end was beyond comprehension. Until the morning of 23 July. Photos of the fair-skinned assassin were on every website and the police announced that he had managed to liquidate 80 young people before he was arrested.

Some of those who had replaced their Facebook picture with the Norwegian flag the evening before felt awful. They had assumed that the perpetrator was an extreme Muslim and wanted to declare their allegiance to the Norwegian society.

As the days passed, it turned out that it was not such a bad thing after all to use the Norwegian flag as a symbol of solidarity. The Muslims in Norway did it too. It turned out that the mass murderer and terrorist Anders Behring Breivik triggered a sense of community that went beyond all ethnic and religious backgrounds to a greater extent than ever before. This was symbolised most strongly at one of the first funerals where the Kurdish parents had chosen to ask a priest and an iman to conduct the ceremony together.   The picture of this multi-religious funeral procession also travelled around the world - along with the news that members of the Norwegian government followed each and every terror victim to the grave. Norway is no bigger than this was the natural thing to do.

The Labour Party was the target

The numbers that emerged after the first night proved to be a little too high. Altogether 69 people lost their lives on Utøya, while eight people died in the bomb attack against the government buildings. In addition, 90 people were injured, some of them for life. Members of the government knew many of the injured and killed personally - both in the government offices and on Utøya, which was an educational and conference site owned by the Labour Party's youth organisation, AUF.

The killer's choice of Utøya shows how knowledgeable he was about Norwegian politics. He wanted to hurt the Labour Party and he knew that Utøya was a nurturing place for the social democratic leadership. Also, interest in politics often runs in the family. There are always children of well-known social democrats at AUF's summer camp. This year was no exception: MPs, county leaders and state secretaries were amongst the relatives.

Where did this hatred of the Labour Party come from? This was one of the first questions that cropped up in the days after the first shock had gone. This was also a question that pointed towards one of the most difficult topics of debate. Could the political opponents of the Labour Party actually have helped to reinforce the killer's ideas of Norwegian society and politics? Anders Behring Breivik was a member of the Progress Party for several years and, some years ago, he took part in debates on the party's youth websites.

The Progress Party's responsibility

The man who would later become a terrorist had resigned from the Progress Party and there is a broad understanding in Norway that no party can take responsibility for the actions of all its members. Likewise it is possible that Behring Breivik renewed his faith in his own ideas by listening to the leader of the Progress Party, Siv Jensen, talk about stealth Islamization, and by reading opinion pieces by leading MPs who urged for a culture battle.

Only a few days after the killings a well-known Norwegian TV personality asserted such an opinion - in an article in the Spanish newspaper El Pais. When it became apparent to Norwegians that he was raising the notion that Siv Jensen was an accomplice, he immediately had to make a public apology. The common view was that politicians always have to be tough in their language without having to take responsibility for someone misinterpreting their words and using them as a justification for violent action.

However, there are also limits to the harshness of words you use. Siv Jensen has made it clear that she does not think it is wrong to talk about stealth Islamization of Norwegian society, while one of her parliamentary representatives has publicly regretted the words he used in an article which encouraged a culture battle.

It becomes even more difficult to draw boundaries where you move from an edited political discussion to an unregulated debate on the Internet. There hateful and racist remarks are rife - often accompanied by claims that the politically correct Norway does not allow people to speak the truth about immigration and the alleged cultural decline.

People who think like the killer

Anders Behring Breivik laid out a comprehensive text online just before he committed his crimes, and it appears that he has gathered much inspiration from right-wing nationalistic bloggers. Ideas that the Muslims and Western leadership have entered into a secret pact to allow the Muslims to take over Europe are fed by people from many countries who have been part of a debate and commentary community on the Internet. As a terrorist Behring Breivik was a lone wolf, but as a social commentator he was part of an international community.

Some web editors have decided in the weeks after 22 July that they will no longer allow anonymous contributions in their commentary fields - but otherwise nothing much is new on the Internet. There is a shortage of ideas. Nobody believes it is possible or right to have censorship. Many have argued that "sensible" - meaning moderate - people should be more active online. When they read such an extremist statement, they must reply respectfully instead of dismissing the writer as an idiot. That has been done in some places, but then the commentary thread died out and the extremists moved to other sites.

The role of the authorities

The Police Security Service (PST) is amongst those who systematically keep tabs on the various online debates, but they did not pick up the killer at any time. The Head of PST said only a week afterwards that no security community in the world would have been able to discover and prevent such an attack. That is a claim that many have questioned. Behring Breivik was a member of a pistol club, he bought his weapons legally, he bought all that he needed for the car bomb in an honest way, and he upheld extreme views online.

How much surveillance there should be in society is certain to be an important topic for debate in the months to come. Similarly, discussions are already taking place about politicians' safety. Many years ago the security areas in Oslo called for some streets to be closed so that it was no longer possible to drive a car right into the Prime Minister's Office but nothing was done about it. In Norway the ideal is openness. Politicians should not hide behind walls and barriers.

At the time of writing, a special 22 July Commission is being established which will pave the way for a thorough debate on all these questions. It will also investigate whether society's resources were used correctly on the Friday afternoon when terror struck.

An important question that is sure to be raised is whether the police could have reached Utøya faster. It is a relatively large island and the killer walked around for an hour and 20 minutes before the police stopped him. Eye witnesses have reported that he killed the whole time. If the police had arrived half an hour earlier many lives would have been saved.

The response from police chiefs to such questions at first was that they could not have done anything differently. As the weeks have passed, however, the tone has become more humble. Perhaps they should have used a helicopter instead of driving, perhaps they should have accepted the loan of a boat from a camping tourist instead of waiting or their own police boat?

The election campaign

There are not only many questions, they are also especially important for the bereaved who want to know that everything possible was done to prevent the catastrophe. In the first weeks the government insisted that these questions could not be answered before the investigations and the commission were finished. But that will not be until next year, and people will not have the patience to wait that long.

It will probably come out already in the election campaign which is slowly getting under way in Norway. Obviously, no party wants to make political capital on what happened, but under the open political debate there will always be suggestions that one or the other could have done more - the alternative is that they exploit the terror politically.

There are two consequences which could have a direct impact on the normal political debate. The one is that the leader of the Labour Party, Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg, was so extraordinarily good at dealing with the terror. Despite the fact that he himself knew many of the victims and their families he stood out as a composed and confident leader for the whole country - he combined grief and vigour in a way that impressed practically all Norwegians.

The first political opinion polls suggest that many voters are now considering voting for the Labour Party because Stoltenberg emerged as such a good leader. But there are probably also some who will vote for the Labour Party as an expression of sympathy. The party is in a terrible state. While the rest of society returned to everyday life the elected representatives from top to bottom continued to go to funerals. In every county there are key young politicians who have died or have been so severely affected that it would be inhuman for them to take part in a trivial election campaign.

That is the situation, and neither the Labour Party nor the other parties can do anything about it. Perhaps a lot will change when the actual election takes place on 12 September, but now - in the middle of August - is seems almost unthinkable. The catastrophe has been too great.

The views expressed are those of the author.

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