It is not true – reflections on terror in Norway one year later

{Hit this link to see the rose photo on Flickr}

I have not been back to Norway in the year since the attacks. Far removed from the scene of the crime both then and now I have been buffered from the blunt force of what happened. But that remoteness has left me adrift. It is hard to put into words how I feel except to say something has been irreparably broken. These are my thoughts on the one year anniversary of the terror attacks in Oslo and on Utøya.

“It is not true that we are like animals”

These, the opening words of the song “Det er ikke sant (It is not true)” by Norwegian lyricist Odd Børretzen (freely translated by yours truly), were the first words that came to mind when I saw a post by my friend Stig on Facebook: “Trying to find the words for tomorrow’s sermon”. Stig is a minister in the Norwegian State Church, and like all Norwegians he was bracing for the first anniversary of the terror attacks and massacre of the 22nd of July 2011. His job, to guide his congregation through grief, disbelief and frustration and help them make sense of what has happened, and what continues to happen, in our broken modern world. I don’t envy him.

In Colorado wounds have not yet begun to heal after a young man booby-trapped his apartment and opened fire on a crowd at a movie theatre. The police believe they have their man, but the reason for his attack remains a mystery. And even when it comes, if it comes at all, we will never fully understand it.

We want to write them off as crazy, these men; as animals out of control; as something distinctly other from ourselves. But they are not. They are us. And that is what scares me the most.

It is not true that we are like wild animals. So we need to stop acting like we are.

“It is not true”

Seeing the first pictures of a bombed out government square in Oslo on my cell phone that morning a year ago I was struck by a moment of disbelief. This can’t be true. Like most who have been in Oslo my first thought was that there are no gas lines or anything of that nature in the square, so something must have gone horribly wrong to cause such devastation. While that was processing I started counting the hours. Norway is nine hours ahead of Vancouver. That means this happened at between two and three in the afternoon. Which means my friends were likely at work. In those very buildings. Who works there now? Anders for sure. Jon. Karin. Torstein?
The urge to get on a plane right then and there was as uncontrollable as it was unfeasible. What has happened to everyone who was there?

The pictures kept pouring in through news reports and social media. I was struck by the relatively few people in the photos. Summer. Friday. Decent weather. People probably left work early. Maybe they are OK.

People start checking in. Anders shows up on Facebook saying he was halfway home when the explosion happened. Karin was at home. Torstein chimes in soon after. He crossed the plaza only minutes before the explosion and was just down the street when it happened. What about Jon? Do we know anyone else? A frantic effort begins, everyone reaching out through cell phones and social media. Hours later Anne checks in letting us know she and Jon are on vacation abroad. By that time things have gotten far worse.

“It is not true that we are driven by fear of all that is unknown”

Bizarre reports were coming in from Utøya. Of police shooting at kids. Of dead bodies in the water. Children tweeting from behind rocks and outcroppings, screaming for help over social media. Speculation rampant. CNN proclaimed Islamic terror in Norway, attributing the attacks to Norwegian military involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq. That made no sense. Utøya is AUF. It’s an island full of kids, members of the youth branch of the Labour Party. An unlikely target for terror. To me it was clear this was likely an act of a right wing extremist or nationalist, the bomb in Oslo an obvious diversion for the real attack.

I flashed back to my visits to Utøya. It’s small. You can walk its circumference in 30 minutes flat. It’s in a lake with ice cold water. It’s remote. It would be a shooting gallery.

I spent the day translating Norwegian news to English speaking followers on Twitter and Facebook, debunking conspiracies and speculations, contradicting North American media and their insistence that this must be an Islamic attack, making sure people understood the severity of what happened. Gillian from the Vancouver Sun called. CTV called. CBC called. CKNW called. I felt like the sole Norwegian in a world of chaos. I couldn’t eat. The island. The tent camp. The main house. The ice cold water. Nowhere to hide. What could I do? What would I have done?

“It is not true that we are like wild animals, blinded by instincts and fears”

Anders Behring Breivik. That was his name. A blonde, built, blue eyed Norwegian. Younger than me. Could be mistaken for one of my friends at a distance. Standard issue “ethnic Norwegian”. Loaded with explosives, guns, and a vision of the future divorced from reality. “The Lone Wolf” CNN decried. Not a terrorist: A “mass murderer”. Clearly deranged. Standard issue lunatic. If only the world was that simple. Breivik was neither the first nor the last of his kind. And though he left a longer list of victims than any single terrorist before him, he was not extraordinary. Breivik was our wake up call.

Too long has the Western world lulled itself in the delusion that terrorism is something enacted on us by others and that when it does come from the inside, it is still something foreign. The reality is sadly the reverse: Terrorism largely comes from the inside, is perpetrated by people like ourselves against us. The attack in Colorado just two days ago should be a stark reminder. But instead of calling it what it is we resolve the cognitive dissonance by applying labels to the perpetrators. “Insane”. “Mental health issues”. “Loner”. “Outsider”. “Radicalized”. These are not fitting labels for murderers. They are symptoms and diagnoses of societal defects.

People are not inherently evil. Even these people are not inherently evil. They are horribly misguided. They lash out at the world because they are not heard, because they want to change the world, because they believe that violence is a justifiable means of bringing the world in line with their beliefs. That’s not an excuse, and it does not justify their actions. It does however make it harder to write them off as anomalies and get on with business as usual.

“We are people”

A year has passed since a single man tore my world apart, and I’ve been trying to patch it up again ever since. Try as I might the tear will not heal fully, and I think that is a good thing. I have lived my life in the belief that provided enough information and a solid system of support, my fellow men and women will do the right thing and play their part in making this world a better place. I now realize we still have a long way to go for that to become a reality. Our connected and technologically evolved modern world has left humanity behind, replacing fact with fiction, science with doctrine and empathy with political dogma.

We have led ourselves astray leaving many to drift away from the group only to come back filled with hatred and contempt. But we can carve a new path for ourselves, one that can be followed by everyone. If we want to we can reclaim our humanity: reframe our conversations, our conventions, our religion and our politics to focus on what is best for all of us, not just for the individual.

We are not ants or wolves. But in some ways we are like them. In good ways. We are pack animals. We need each other. We work better as a group. And none of us should be left to wander alone.

It is not true. We are not ants or wolves.
We are people.
We want to whisper passionate words to each other
and search for each other
and caress each other in the darkness.

The wolves howl in the streets
later they stand in the broken glass and scream:
You are like us. You are wolves.
But it is not true.The last two verses of “Det er ikke sant” by Odd Børretzen

For another perspective check out the article Utøya and the love paradigm by my friend Michael Brønbo.