Today at noon, my father, who is the verger of our parish church, had the bells ring in commemoration of the victims of the massacre at Utøya, July 22 2011. The bells rang for only five minutes, the stipulated time, and served as a reminder that today was the anniversary of the greatest tragedy of Norwegian history after World War II.
The anniversary provides an impetus for Norway as a nation to reflect on how we handled the aftermath, what was done well, and what was done immensely poorly. The present post will not be a thorough analysis of the time following the tragedy. There are far better commentators for that than me, and there are far better resources for learning about this watershed in Norwegian history. One of the best resources to be found is the 22. July centre (https://22julisenteret.no/). The purpose of this short blogpost, however, is rather to provide a short overview of some key aspects of what went wrong, and to some extent what was done well, in the wake of the tragedy. It is also necessary to emphasise that the massacre was perpetrated against the youth branch of the Norwegian Labour Party, and that this was above all a political mass-murder. I for my part do not and have never belonged to this party – although I have voted for them in some elections.
Following the arrest of the terrorist – whose name I refuse to mention here – Norway stood at a juridical crossroads, and I distinctly remember the concern and worry I felt about how the juridical system would react. There were people who were clamouring for the death penalty to be reinstated, a punishment that was last performed in Norway in 1948, and which was abolished in 1979. Fortunately, the standards of our juridical systems were upheld, and the terrorist was given a solicitor as is the right of all criminals in Norway. The following process was not without its flaws, but on the whole, it was a demonstration of how well our juridical system works, and how its principles could be maintained even in the face of an unprecedented crisis. The fact that the solicitor, Geir Lippestad, had previously belonged to the same party as the victims of the massacre, speaks volumes both about Lippestad as a person and about the integrity of the Norwegian laws.
Following the arrest of the terrorist, Norway also stood at a self-examining crossroad. The acknowledgement that this was a national tragedy, a tragedy that belonged to the entire Norwegian people despite party lines, was necessary to receive from other parties, and that acknowledgement was given, albeit imperfectly, and this gave some degree of unification and national healing.
Norway also stood at a political crossroads. By 2011, the right wing of the Norwegian political spectre had become more extreme, and pockets of violent racist ideologies were thriving in online forums. There had been racist murders and episodes of racist violence, and for those of use who were willing to acknowledge the fact, it was clear that Norway had a problem with its right-wing part of the population. However, it was commonly held that the average Norwegian was very far removed from the violent extremes to which the terrorist belonged, and by which the terrorist was influenced. In the aftermath of the massacre, several people in online comment sections made their masks slip, however, and expressed sympathies with the cause, if not with the action, that the terrorist had claimed to champion – i.e., the fight against the multiculturalism, one of the strongest assets of modern Norway. It became clear that a lot of Norwegians also belonged to the same ideology as the terrorist, and that the terrorist had made reality of what many Norwegians had fantasised about. Islamophobia, xenophobia, racism, and various other elements belonging to the right-wing end of the political spectrum were flourishing, and now it became clear that they did.
The massacre became a political crossroad for Norway, and an opportunity to acknowledge and make a reckoning of the fact that there are violent currents in our country that need to be fought against. This reckoning never came. Instead, the drive towards national healing meant that many politicians and many news outlets were eager to meet those from the right wing and seek unification. While no doubt well-intended, and while it was done in order to avoid casting everybody on the right in the same light as the terrorist, it also meant that we lost an opportunity to properly identify and roundly condemn the currents that had moved the terrorist along. We could have identified the right-wing talking points, the dog whistles, the rhetorical strategies, the coddling of extremist tendencies that had unified into this heinous crime. We could have set in stone that right-wing parties such as one called the Progress Party – of which the terrorist had been a member before he left it because it was not sufficiently extreme to his tastes – did enable and harbour views that were very closely aligned with the views of the terrorist. In this, the political scene as well as the media failed, and as a consequence we have still not had the reckoning that we need.
Today, ten years after the massacre, Norway as a nation should look back and realise that we have spilled one of our greatest opportunities to fight against extremism. The insistence on cross-party unification resulted in an unwillingness to acknowledge that the Norwegian right wing still continues the rhetorical game that fuelled the terrorist. For this reason, we as a nation have failed to properly report and digest the fact that in 2019 another Norwegian terrorist attempted an attack on a Norwegian mosque. We have failed to acknowledge the connection between the massacre, the attempted attack, and the unchecked rhetoric of the right. This has also meant that a current of hatred against the Labour Party that was already flowing before 2011 has become even more vitriolic and unhinged, in no small part due to certain public figures who went out of their way to criticise and harass survivors for not doing more for those who lost their lives. The traumatisation of the survivors was strengthened by a massively flawed media approach, in which counter-voices from the right and from alternative milieus were given space that they should not have had.
The failure to acknowledge the dangerous currents in our society, and the attempt to unify across the political spectrum also led to the Labour Party, who was then in government, to make concessions to the right that curtailed immigration and the right to residence for several families who came from the Middle East, Central Asia and East Africa. These concessions were brutal, and led to a loss of the moral high ground that the Norwegian government had acquired by upholding the standards of our juridical system.
These elements, our various failures to maintain a moral standard and to identify the evils in our midst, mean that now, ten years later, we still do not have a sufficient understanding of how and who we are as a country and as a nation. In some ways we have done things well, but there are many missed opportunities, and those missed opportunities are necessary to remember as we commemorate the lives of those who died at the hands of a child-murderer in 2011.