The 22nd July, 2011 should have been a day which followed suit with the so far pleasant summer that Norway was now used to having. Conversely it became a living nightmare for Norwegians, one which cannot be forgotten. It was a day that bore witness to a horrific massacre of innocent life which has not been encountered in Norway since the Second World War.
Many people’s underlying suspicion was that an international terror group had been behind the bombing which took place in Oslo city centre, where 8 people were killed, and for hours this filled the constantly rolling news on the television channels. Initially, there was very little coverage on what would reveal itself to be an even worse tragedy – the unfolding events on Utøya which left 68 innocent children killed.
Being half Norwegian, my father and I happened to turn on the television that afternoon to be greeted with the ghostly images of an Oslo city centre that no one had seen before. Broken glass underfoot coupled with the dusty air made it seem as if we were watching a horror film, but these images had in fact been frantically captured on a smart phone hours before.
As Norwegians attempted to come to terms with what was happening, the same two questions darted back and fore: How had the Norwegian authorities failed to detect the very unsubtle methods that Anders Breivik had been using for years to publicise his extreme-right political views? Also, why did it take so long for the aforementioned to reach the island – later reports stated it took an hour and a half for police to get across to Utøya?
The answer to the first question is simple and somewhat disturbing: Norwegian authorities were not alerted to Breivik’s online political manifesto because it did not once occur to them that they would be under attack. There has been a clean slate in Norway regarding terrorist attacks; this gave rise to an extreme sense of false security.
Norwegian news coverage in the days leading up to the attack is representative of this detachment from the world and of the perceived infallibility of Norway’s defence capabilities. The main headline for days was the ongoing Rupert Murdoch saga unfolding in the British High Court, closely followed by Norwegian ‘summer’ news, consisting for example of a man who, having been fishing, had to climb a roof in order to avoid a grizzly bear. The man was uninjured and the bear had lost interest promptly, however this was deemed to be a big enough story to captivate Norwegian news audiences for at least ten minutes.
Non-existent was the coverage of the worst East African famine in sixty years and of the plight of the aid agencies who were trying to reach the worst affected areas. Only after I had left Norway did this coverage begin, and it was still only shown after the ‘summer’ news had had its calming effect, as my father aptly said with plentiful sarcasm when I questioned the poor quality of news: ‘You see, Norwegians are on summer holiday, so it’s understandable why they don’t want to be bothered by bad news!’
Related to this is the reason why police were unable to reach the young victims on Utøya sooner. Caught off their guard with heavy equipment and locals’ boats that simply would not hold their weight, the police had to wait for a suitable boat to transport them. When asked why a helicopter was not used instead, the honest answer was that the nearest helicopter base in a country which stretches well into the Arctic Circle was the very south of the country; this would take even longer than getting the suitable boat.
This said, it is very difficult to achieve the balance between too much security and not enough, and in this instance it seems that Norway’s unpreparedness was justifiable to an extent. How was a country that had been peaceful for 66 years to know that one of their own would commit such atrocities?
However, the Norwegian government and Norwegians in general must now begin to face up to the fact that they are not, and have never been, infallible, that they are currently playing a prominent role on the world stage, and thus need to be more aware of that role and its effects on other states, and that some views expressed in the Norwegian media regarding immigrants further convinced fanatics like Breivik to take action. One can only hope that this terrible day will not be repeated again, and a more aware Norway will help that become a reality.