Saturday, July 23, 2011


Like most people who have friends in Oslo, I was stupefied Friday morning to read that a bomb had gone off in the centre of the city. And my shock grew upon hearing that a gunman had massacred AUF members on Utøya. The shock was all the more acute knowing that several friends are members. Not the world’s most inveterate facebook user, on Friday I logged in and stayed logged in as the “I’m okay, but this is crazy” messages rolled in. The relief that those messages brought was tempered by news of the rising death toll (over 80 by Friday evening, now set at over 90).

I must now have read nearly a dozen news stories and editorials that discuss the “loss of innocence” that must surely accompany this shocking brutality. But innocence isn’t quite what these commentators mean—Norwegians, after all, created their justifiably-admired social democracy having taken a long, hard look at the “world as it is” and deciding that they wanted something else, something better. The making of that better place should never be considered an act of naiveté. What I think people are trying to suggest though, is that the violence that blindsided Norwegians will inevitably alter their ability to live out the values that today characterise their society; that the social and cultural terrain on which Norwegians relate to each other, their government and the world has irrevocably shifted.

I think that those commentators will be wrong. Because what they forget is that the decision to live one’s values lies with the will of the individuals and communities who comprise a people or a nation—not in what anyone else does to those people. People can choose how to respond to acts of violence directed their way. Reactions are not pre-ordained—there is real agency in the hands of Norwegians today.

Jens Stoltenberg’s anguished yet measured response looked to me like a good start. The resolution behind the pain was directed not with anger towards a perpetrator, but with purpose towards defining those things that must, at all costs, not change. The trust, the openness, the faith in the national community, the commitment to an idealistic internationalism—none of them perfect but all of them good enough to be a lesson to the rest of us.

There has been, so far as I can see, no chest-beating. No calls for violence or revenge. No “we’re the greatest country on earth”. Not even “we’re special”. What one senses more of is a kind of “We’re Norwegians” (in that nice accent) “and we like to look at the world in a particular way and live our lives accordingly. No one—not this lunatic or any other—is going to change that”.

The immediate comparison was made to 9/11—that this will be the defining moment for Norway that the attacks on the U.S. were for our country, our political culture, and our democracy. I hope that this will not be so, and I suspect that it will not be the case. For although twice the number of people were killed in Norway relative to the country’s small population on 22 July as compared to 9/11—meaning, one assumes, that twice as many people will have been personally touched by the tragedy—Norwegians look well-positioned to follow their better angels. The United States, after 9/11, learnt no lessons, grew more hubristic and less understanding, substituted a shallow patriotic unity for a genuine enunciation of collectively-held values.

I hope that if I were to again find myself in Norway a year from today, the passport control officers would still greet me with a friendly “Welcome to Norway!” (in that nice accent), and wave me on my way. I hope that the airports would still look like they were bought from IKEA instead of out of a Blackwater catalogue. I hope that I could wander freely as a California Yankee into the chambers of King Harald’s Supreme Court. I hope that I would still notice and wonder at the sunniness of civil society which, if people can keep the faith, should last as long as the light on a mid-summer’s day in the far north. It could, in fact, be a beacon and a lesson and a symbol of what is possible to others.

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