x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Norway massacre: the end of innocence

Åsne Seierstad, the best-selling Norwegian author, mourns her country's loss of innocence after last week's fatal attacks.

Åsne Seierstad, the best-selling Norwegian author, mourns her country's loss of innocence after last week's fatal attacks. Above, a sea of flowers and lit candles are placed in memory of those killed in the bomb and shooting attack in front of Oslo Cathedral on Monday.
Åsne Seierstad, the best-selling Norwegian author, mourns her country's loss of innocence after last week's fatal attacks. Above, a sea of flowers and lit candles are placed in memory of those killed in the bomb and shooting attack in front of Oslo Cathedral on Monday.

"I … have become comfortably numb." The voice of Roger Waters cuts through the grey night. The waves seem to come ever closer to the shores of the island outside Oslo where we are all invited for a lazy summer weekend.

"Comfortably numb. That is how Norway has become," my friend Marius, a Norwegian film director, says.

"Just nod if you can hear me! Is there anyone home?," the lead singer of Pink Floyd screams. The light never really disappears in the summer nights of Norway, but the rays of the pale midnight sun are now forced behind heavy clouds of rain.

"We had become detached from the world, resting in our own soft cushions. Fed by world news, but never feeling the reality of it," Marius states. "Now we have woken up," he adds.

A few hours before, we had just left Oslo behind when a text clicked in. "Stay away from the city centre," it said.

Old instincts made me turn on the radio: "The whole facade of the building of the prime minister's office is missing ..."

Silence fell in the car as the news developed. A feeling of disbelief overpowered us.

A warning had been sent out the same day. The weather authorities had asked people to open drains and gutters as extreme rain was expected. The same amount of water that usually drizzles down in a month was expected to fall in just one day. People were asked to avoid windy places and to tie up their boats. But no one had been told to avoid the city centre.

I called my father, who works in the parliament close to the government area. He was fine, but shaken. My younger brother, whose office was two streets from the blast, was sat at his desk, with his back to the window, when it blew in. Mercifully, his office blinds stopped the glass shattering all over him.

My first instinct was, I have to admit, Islamic extremism. Norway takes part in the war in Afghanistan, we have bombed in Libya and our newspapers printed the caricatures of Mohammed. And we are a soft target. Norway is a country where policemen are unarmed, where you can walk in the king's garden at all hours, even straight into the reception of the prime minister's office, or you could until Friday afternoon, when it was blown to pieces.

Better to avoid Oslo. We are three women and two babies in the car, the island we are heading to must be safer. The driver, a painter called Bjørg, ponders the timing of the attack. If they, we still think it is "they", had wanted to strike the maximum number of people, they chose the wrong moment. Most government employees are lounging around by the sea. And for those few who still work during the month of July, 3.30pm is way after work hours.

Babies and bottles unloaded, candles comfort us around the large wooden table at our weekend retreat, as Norway's new reality is unravelling.

It becomes clear that this was not an attack on our way of life from countries or cultures far away: this was one man's work - a blond, blue-eyed Norwegian, born and raised in one of the well-to-do parts of Oslo. A man of 32 was behind the terror. A man who was living with his mother just a few streets from many of us, hating Muslims, immigrants, socialists and multiculturalists.

"Imagine his childhood," Marius says, already seeing the terrorist's life as a film. "His school days, his anger, his urge to revenge. What went wrong?"

"He must have been so lonely," the novelist Hanne says. "This also says something about our time, where people spend their life in front of computer war games, hating themselves and the world."

"It is time we start hugging each other," Bjørg reflects. "We got used to the state taking care of us, but people need people, not bureaucrats."

In the morning hours as the sun is still hidden behind wet, dark clouds, some go to sleep, some take a rainy bath, some turn on the TV.

The shock silences us. We just stare at the screen. Close to 80 teenagers are confirmed killed on Utøya island.

Bjørg gets a phone call as photos of the killer are released. "He shops at the same grocery store as us!" she gasps. "My boyfriend recognised him from the pictures. I have crossed him several times."

The hostess Elisabeth is crying. "Nature is the only relief," she says, leaving us helplessly watching kids swimming in the waters surrounding the island of Utøya, the place where hell broke loose. Through the window we see Elisabeth's light curls disappear between the trees.

"I can ease your pain! Get you on your feet again!," Pink Floyd had sung to us. But it comforted nobody.

"I still feel numb," Elisabeth said when she returns. Uncomfortably numb. We are shaken, as Norway is shaken. The holding of hands. The hugs. The tears. The silent talks. Wherever you go, there is only one theme.

This Monday, several hundred thousand roses were lifted towards the sky in commemoration of the victims. Red as love, red as socialism, the rose is the symbol of the Labour Party, whose Youth League is wounded in the heart.

"He took some of our most beautiful roses, but he can't stop the spring," one of the survivors, the leader of the Youth League, Eskil Pedersen, told the masses, as a living carpet of flowers was held up in front of him.

Some people had spread a message on Facebook: "Let's meet outside the town hall. Bring roses! We'll march together in an act of support."

For a capital of less than half a million people, the attendance could only be equalled with the amount of people who took to the streets on liberation day in May 1945. Almost every second citizen of Oslo showed up to commemorate the victims.

The march got cancelled. All streets leading up to the town hall were packed. We couldn't move. So we just stood there.

Who has ever heard a choir of a couple of hundred thousand people? The voices were blowing in the wind, drifting towards the harbour, out on the sea, drowning, dissolving. We sung the lyrics of a 1930s anti-fascist song: "Faced by your enemies, on every hand, under a bloody storm, now make a stand!"

Even my three-year-old son was standing still. Not so much for the song, as for all the police cars, motorbikes, ambulances and firemen around. "Two police boats!" he screamed in delight as he looked into the waves. Police boats are something until now he had seen only in his Lego collection. Now they were real. In this country of little crime, little inequality, where most people take safety and security for granted, the police presence is low.

"Maybe you ask in fear, uncovered, open, what shall I fight with, what is my weapon?" the huge choir sang.

The outfit of Anders Behring Breivik was as red as blood when he was driven to court on that same day. He had wanted to wear a uniform, but the judge had ruled that out, so he appeared with a Lacoste pullover, which Breivik had revealed is his favourite brand. Just as Breitling Crosswind is his favourite watch, and Montblanc his favourite pen, all of these details recorded in his manifesto, standing side by side with his expression of hatred for multiculturalism in his strange, confused script.

Norway is traditionally an open society; when someone is presented for imprisonment, it is usually in a courtroom where anyone can watch or listen. This time it was decided to hold the meeting behind closed doors, both to not hamper the investigation and for fear that he would send coded messages to any helpers.

Until now, it seems that Anders Behring Breivik operated alone, but his perceptions didn't appear in a vacuum. Now Norway wonders how this terrorist was bred in our peaceful society.

Utøya had, until this Friday, a sweet flavour about it for most Norwegians. The island was a gift from the trade unions to the Workers Youth League after the Second World War. Stories from Utøya are abundant in our political gossiping. This is where our socialist ministers got their first kiss, had their teenage romances and their first stay-up-all-night-to-save-humanity discussions. "This island is the paradise of my youth," the prime minister, Jens Stoltenberg, said in his speech to the nation on the day of the attack. "Now it has turned into hell."

The youth wing of the Labour Party has traditionally been in opposition to the party leadership. They are greener, they are redder, and most notably, they stand for multiculturalism, and a more open and humane policy towards immigration into Norway.

This is why Anders Behring Breivik, who has admitted to both the explosion of the government area and the killing of the activists, saw them as his main enemy. "He wanted to hurt the Labour Party and the recruitment to it, in the hardest way," said his lawyer, Geir Lippestad.

Anders Behring Breivik is a Christian extremist, who, blinded by his ideas, had chosen a holy war. In his manifesto he wrote of holding a "martyr's mass" in my neighbourhood church of Frogner. He stated he wanted to change Norway through violence, that it was the only path open.

He is a self-proclaimed saviour of the nation, wanting to see a white Norway - more similar to the society we both grew up in. In the 1970s and 1980s, a black person was a rare sight for me growing up in the provincial town of Lillehammer, and for him in an upper-class district of Oslo.

As in the rest of Europe, immigration is a controversial topic here. Far to the north as we are, seldom the first port of arrival and with no colonial past, it took a while for the immigrant communities to grow. But as they did, so racism did. Nationalist groups and extremist websites have popped up in the past couple of years. Breivik was active on several of them, and his ideas got fed and fattened by the praise from people of the same opinions.

If his acts have done anything for the immigration debate, it must be that it will be harder to raise drastic and violent opinions, and easier to challenge them. Those that operate in the shady area between extreme nationalism and the right wing might spurn these forums for a while, knowing that hate speeches can lead to action. Breivik claims that he has followers, but the response he has got from the people of Norway is in unison. On Twitter, Facebook and countless blogs, people write statements about standing up for the values that make Norway Norway. At a petrol station down the road from our home or from the neighbour I had hardly exchanged a word with, the message is the same: we will not let terror change us.

The prime minister's answer says something about the flair of Norwegian society. Where George W Bush threatened the terrorists of 2001 with "hunt 'em down", Stoltenberg stated: "We will meet this attack with more democracy, more openness, more humanism."

Because it is not just the government or our political system that is under attack, it is our way of thinking, our innocent trustful openness. And there is one way to lose after such an attack - to exchange openness with fear, stop trusting each other, let scepticism move in where trust used to live.

•••

My publishing house is situated in the heart of Oslo. My editor, Anders Heger, was in the street waiting for his daughters when the bomb exploded. "Give the man a good lawyer, a long and fair trial, and a humane punishment," he wrote on his blog the same evening. "Then we will deal with this as a civilised society. That is how we will win."

One writer colleague suggested that it is time we all examine the virus of racism inside of us, that we take it out in the open and study it from all angles.

Our coalition red-green government has been under increasing criticism from the right-wing for being too soft a target. Had the attack been executed by Muslim extremists, the criticism of the government's naivety would have skyrocketed. There would have been a loud demand for more surveillance, more security, more police, more gates and fences. This demand was only raised on the very website (www.document.no), where Anders Behring Breivik was active. "Norway is at war. The government has failed. Why doesn't the prime minister say anything?" the editor wrote two hours after the first attack, accusing Muslim terrorists.

His demand fell on deaf ears. Instead, the leader of the Youth League said after the loss of so many of his friends: "Our ideas are still alive. We will be back at Utøya."

Utøya, this island of rocks and pines, where wild flowers grow between the paths, is somewhere the killer might never walk again. Even though the maximum penalty in Norway for any offence is 21 years, to earn his freedom he must show that he has really changed and will not offend again.

Norway is liberal on crime and punishment, but there is one additional penalty that Breivik will feel to be particularly severe: he will have to stay, maybe for the rest of his life, in that most highly multicultural society - a Norwegian prison.

Åsne Seierstad is the author of The Bookseller of Kabul and The Angel of Grozny. She lives in Oslo.