The Observer , 24 July 2011
Norway is accustomed to seeing itself lauded as the healthiest, wealthiest and most peaceful country in the world. On Friday, that changed. The horrific events of that day have left the country in mourning. Its enviable position at the top of so many league tables for wellbeing is now clouded by a tragedy of a kind that no parent, no relative, no friend should ever endure. We send our condolences to all those who have lost loved ones. The bombing in Oslo that left the city looking like a war zone was followed by the slaughter of dozens of young people, members of the Norwegian Labour youth league, on the island of Utoya, 15 miles west of the capital. They had been unable to find a hiding place from the man armed with a gun whom they believed was a helpful policeman.
At the time of writing, it is unclear whether Anders Behring Breivik, the 32-year-old suspected of both attacks, had accomplices. He is Norwegian born and well educated; he ran his own company cultivating vegetables and reportedly lived with his mother in an affluent area of Oslo. Until Friday, he must have appeared an average model Norwegian citizen, possibly even abiding by what is known in Scandinavia as Jante Law, the Nordic version of tall poppy syndrome. It was invented by Aksel Sandemose, a Danish-Norwegian author in the 1930s. It satirically describes how, since the collective and equality are so important in Scandinavian societies, there are rules to inhibit self-glorification. Rules that, it seems, Anders Behring Breivik has now broken in the most terrible manner.
Police chief Sveinung Sponheim, speaking on Friday, said that Breivik held strong political views, his internet postings suggesting that “he has some political traits directed towards the right and anti-Muslim views”.
Whatever the motivation for the carnage, prime minister Jens Stoltenberg understood the threat that such an attack poses to the fabric of Norwegian society, aimed at the values Norwegians cherish most – their openness, freedom of expression and their feeling of safety. “You will not destroy us,” Stoltenberg said. “You will not destroy our democracy, or our commitment to a better world… no one shall scare us out of being Norway.”
The circumstances surrounding the double tragedy is bound to trigger a debate as to the possible causes and what might have been done to prevent the bombing and deaths.
By a terrible irony, the young people who have lost their lives did so precisely because, in attending a summer camp, they wanted to be active and engaged citizens. It would be a huge disservice to them if the anti-immigrant rhetoric of which Anders Behring Breivik was apparently fond stokes greater antipathy to Norway’s immigrants. In times of chaos, it is all too easy to turn on “the other” in our midst.
Scandinavia in particular has developed a strain of political discourse that has given rise to parties that many would categorise as on the extreme right; some have won seats in parliament. The hard-right Swedish Democrats, for instance, entered parliament for the first time last September with 20 seats. Actions such as those that ripped into Norwegian society on Friday cannot be allowed to boost the support of those advocating division, discrimination and violence.
So why would Anders Behring Breivik choose to target young members of Norway’s Labour party? Could this be his warped protest against a government he saw as too lax on immigration?
Norway is a small country with a population of only 4.9million – around 10% of whom are immigrants, mainly from Poland, Sweden, Pakistan and Somalia. It is a rich welfare state with relatively low income inequality and the highest employment rate amongst immigrants in the OECD.
However, poverty and unemployment affect non-Norwegian residents most acutely. The right is small, but a poll this month suggests a growing scepticism towards immigration. According to the poll, half of all Norwegians want to shut their country’s borders to new immigrants and almost as many again do not believe integration efforts have gone well.
Immigration from the developing world began relatively late in Norway, in the 1990s, and some have found the transition from a largely homogenous to a more multi-cultural society difficult, Anders Behring Breivik amongst them. He describes himself on Facebook as a nationalist, a Christian and a conservative, strongly opposed to multiculturalism. His apparent dislike of “the other”, and the impact of immigration, may have provoked actions described by justice minister Knut Storberget as “shocking, bloody and cowardly”, but they are bound to be part of a conversation that Norway conducts with itself as it comes to terms with what has happened.
In that context, it is vital that the understandable sense of anger and loss doesn’t allow more extremist voices to dominate. In the same poll, for instance, 80% of Norwegians agreed that it was “positive” for children to go to school with other children from “various cultures” and around half of those questioned believe Norwegian businesses should employ more immigrants.
In Britain yesterday, furious polemical arguments were already taking place around the description of Anders Behring Breivik as a “Christian fundamentalist” – some justifiably wishing to dissociate fundamentalism from Christianity. It perhaps says something about prevalent attitudes in the west that there is very little similar imperative in debates to consider on occasion the merits of uncoupling Islam from fundamentalism.
Six hundred young people, aged 15 to 25 years old, had gathered on Utoya on Friday. By the evening, many on land and in the water were wounded or dead; powerless parents connected by phone were only able to hear their children’s screams – an unimaginable situation. Prime minister Stoltenberg told the country: “It’s important that we don’t allow ourselves to be scared. Because the purpose of that kind of violence is to create fear.” Shortly before, youth camp leader Eskil Pedersen said he was in “shock and sorrow”. He had been evacuated from the island after the police arrived. However, in spite of what he had just witnessed, he went on to use words that chimed with those of his prime minister. “We meet terror and violence with more democracy,” Pedersen said. “And we will continue to fight against intolerance.”
Even in grief and anger, the voice of reason must be heard.