At about 3:30 p.m. on July 22, a car bomb blew out the windows in government buildings, rattling the offices of Norway’s prime minister. Small fires burned inside buildings and injured employees stumbled into the debris-speckled streets of downtown Oslo.
Then, news spread of a shooting on Utoya, an island northwest of the capital. Early reports described a tall, blond man spraying the island with gunfire as hundreds of young campers scattered in terror.
Police scrambled to cope with the attacks, both of which are unprecedented in a country known as one of the world’s safest places, and early suspicion turned to jihadists. The media, including this paper, suggested the blast could be the work of Islamic extremists. After all, Norway was involved in Afghanistan and hosts a sizable and growing Muslim community.
What came next turned everyone’s best guess on its head and left Norwegians, who boast of their tolerant, open, and peaceful society, in a state of shock. The man admitting to the crimes was no Al Qaeda operative. Oslo resident Anders Behring Breivik is just the opposite.
A strike at the heart of society?
An ethnic Norwegian with an expressed hatred of Islam and Muslim immigrants and an affinity for far-right politics, Mr. Breivik stunned a nation by admitting to twin attacks that killed 77 Norwegians. Likening himself to a modern-day Crusader, Breivik claimed the attacks served as a wake-up call to Norwegians and the ruling Labour Party over his fears of Europe’s “Islamization.”
But many Norwegians say Breivik’s attack was no wake-up call at all but a strike at the heart of their society and national psyche. “He attacked everything this country stands for to the last detail,” says Alexander Roine, a 20-something Oslo resident.
In the wake of the assault, a new resolve has emerged. While the attacks will undoubtedly be a defining moment for Norway, much like 9/11 was for the United States, the sentiment so far is that it will be remembered for Norway staying true to its ideals and resisting the urge to retreat under a blanket of tighter security and bigger barriers.
Norway has distinguished itself as an international peace broker, aid donor, and giver of the Nobel Peace Prize, and will seek to retain that image. For example, officials have routinely stated they would not crack down on civil liberties, stifle opposing viewpoints, or break from longstanding legal procedures to safeguard the country.
“We will go on; take care of each other; and protect our democracy, our open society, human rights, and the hopes of young people for a better world,” the foreign minister, Jonas Gahr Store, said in a speech after the attacks.
But the killings have triggered a reassessment of Norway’s readiness to deal with terrorism. Criticized in the media for their slow response time to the island of Utoya, police have been on the defensive.
The one helicopter owned by Oslo police sat unused as police drove to the camp while a Norwegian news crew was filming the massacre from their chartered helicopter. Once at the lake, officers commandeered boats to get to the island. In total, it took authorities more than an hour to arrest Breivik after receiving the first emergency call.
The terror attacks did heighten security in the capital, but Norwegian officials have sought to allay fears over more attacks or any longer-term clampdown. Some change, however, may be forthcoming.
An independent commission to review response to attacks
An independent commission will examine both the bombing and the assault on Utoya and review the actions taken by authorities. Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg has called for the full inquiry in the hopes of learning how to prevent similar attacks in the future.
Iver Neumann, a research fellow at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs, says what little violence Norway experienced in the past was generally traced back to the extreme right. Most cases were minor, isolated incidents and few ever dreamed such a large-scale attack could take place in Norway. “It was immediately clear this was a political act,” he said of the killings.
Some experts say the attacks will force the issue of immigration to the surface. Norway has seen a rise in immigration, like many European countries, with the number of newcomers doubling since 1995.
In a 1,500-page manifesto published online prior to the attacks, Breivik wrote: “The problem can only be solved if we completely remove those who follow Islam. In order to do this all Muslims must ‘submit’ and convert to Christianity…. If they refuse to do this voluntarily prior to Jan. 1, 2020, they will be removed from European soil and deported back to the Islamic world.”
Politicians have debated the issue in the past but the attacks will probably renew an interest in finding a consensus on the issue.
“There is a frustration out there” that immigration isn’t being discussed enough, says Thomas Eriksen, a professor of social anthropology at the University of Oslo. He said outright racism is rare in Norway but that there has been a creeping Islamophobia in Norwegian society.
Many, however, have privately breathed a sigh of relief over the fact that the perpetrator was not an immigrant or Muslim. They worried an attack by Muslim extremists would only bolster a growing skepticism toward foreigners or prompt acts of retribution against Norway’s some 450,000-strong immigrant community.
Instead of crippling Norway’s largest political party, the attacks have earned the governing Labour Party an outpouring of support. A recent poll gave Mr. Stoltenberg high marks, with 94 percent of those questioned saying he has handled the aftermath of the terrorist attacks either “well” or “extremely well.”
Amid the national tragedy, many say they feel more united than ever.
“We were close to each other. We were hugging with people we didn’t know; we were talking to people that we didn’t know,” says Meron Mengis, a high school student, describing one of Oslo’s many public memorial ceremonies. “Everybody was crying together and I think that was something that the man who did this wouldn’t have expected.”