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Our paradise isn’t lost

india Updated: Jul 27, 2011 23:41 IST
Åsne Seierstad

Utøya has, up to this Friday, had a sweet flavour for most Norwegians. But this island of rocks and pine wood, with wildflowers growing in between the paths, has in particular been a defining landscape for the ruling politicians of Norway.

Past stories from Utøya are often heard in our political gossiping. This is where our socialist ministers got their first kisses, had teenage romances and ‘stay-up-all-night-and-save-humanity’ discussions. “This island is the paradise of my youth,” Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg said in his speech to the nation on the night of the attack. “Now it has turned into hell.”

The island, where at least 86 young people died at the hands of one deranged man, was given as a gift from a powerful confederation of trade unions to the youth of the Labour Party after World War 2. And this year was the 60th time that the young socialists of The Workers Youth League held their political summer camp there.

The youth wing of the Labour Party has always been in opposition to the party leadership. They are greener, they are redder, and, most notably, they stand for multiculturalism, and a more liberal and open policy towards immigration into Norway. This is the reason why Anders Behring Breivik saw them as his main enemy. He wanted to hurt the Labour Party and the recruitment to it in the hardest way, says his lawyer.

Breivik is a self-proclaimed saviour of the nation, wanting to restore a white Norway like that we both grew up in. In the 1970s and 1980s a dark-skinned person was a rare sight, for me growing up in a provincial town, and for him in an upper-class district of Oslo. He is a Christian extremist who is planning a “martyr’s mass” in a church. But he reminds us of the cold-blooded Muslim extremists who, blinded by religion, choose jihad.

As in the rest of Europe, immigration is a controversial topic here. Far to the north, seldom the first port of arrival and with no colonial past, it took a long time for immigrant communities to grow. But as they do, so does racism. Nationalist groups and extremist websites have popped up in the recent years. Breivik was active on several of them, and his ideas were fed and fattened by the praise of people with the same opinions, even if most of his web-friends must be disgusted today.

If his killing spree has done anything for the immigration debate, it must be that it will be harder to raise violent opinions and easier for others to challenge them. Those who live in that shady area between just right-wing and extreme nationalism will hopefully, ashamed, spurn these racist forums knowing where loose language leads.

Breivik claims that he has followers, but the response from the people of Norway is uniform. On Twitter, Facebook and countless blogs, people write that they want to fight for the values that make Norway, Norway. At the petrol station down the road, or from the neighbour with whom I have hardly ever exchanged a word, the message is the same: we will not let terror change us.

Stoltenberg’s answer to the terrorist says something about the flair of Norwegian society. Where George Bush said of the terrorists of 9/11 that Americans would “hunt ‘em down”, our prime minister declared: “We will meet this attack with more democracy, more openness.” 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. There is one way to lose against such an attack — to stop trusting each other, letting suspicion move in where trust used to live.

My publishing house has offices next to the area of the blast in the heart of Oslo. My editor was outside 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, who was aware that sometimes disparaging thoughts about his immigrant neighbours passed through his head, suggested that it’s 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. We Norwegians may sometimes find our socialist State of free healthcare and education for all rather dull; we might think that taxes are too high. But we love it when we need it. But for someone, we learnt last week, this State and the people who make it up were far from boring: it was, and we were, his enemy.

Our coalition red-green government has been under harsh and increasing criticism from the right-wing for being too soft a target. Norway is a country where you will have to search long to find an armed policeman. It is a country where you can walk in the King’s garden at all hours. Until last Friday afternoon, when it was blown to pieces, you could also walk straight into the reception of the building that houses the prime minister’s office.

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 fences and gates, less access to our authorities and ruling institutions, and more distance between the rulers and the ruled. The website where Anders Behring Breivik was active was quick to accuse Muslim terrorists. Two hours after the first attack, the editor wrote: “Norway is at war. The government has failed. Why doesn’t the prime minister say anything?”

His demand fell dead. Instead, the leader of the Youth League said yesterday, 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 pine, is somewhere the killer will never again set foot. Although 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 extra penalty that Breivik will feel to be particularly severe: he will have to stay, probably for the rest of his life, in that most highly-multicultural place — a Norwegian prison.

Åsne Seierstad is a journalist based in Norway. She is the author of The Bookseller of Kabul and The Angel of Grozny: Inside Chechnya The views expressed by the author are personal © 2011, Åsne Seierstad