Minister riding out Utøya storm
October 3, 2011
Justice Minister Knut Storberget is taking responsibility for mistakes made during the emergency response to a terrorist’s massacre on the island of Utøya last summer. As the island reopened to the public on Monday, however, Storberget said he has no intention of resigning over criticism to the response.
“I have thought a lot in recent weeks about what it means to take responsibility, after this,” Storberget told newspaper Aftenposten on Monday, referring to the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on July 22 that left 77 persons dead. “And I believe that to resign does not mean you’re taking responsibility. Not in this situation. That would be like running away.”
Most agree that the only person ultimately responsible for the attacks is the 32-year-old Norwegian who carried them out, first bombing government headquarters in Oslo and then gunning down scores of people attending a Labour Party youth camp on Utøya. Since then, however, there have been innumerable media reports of inadequate security around the government complex, slow police response to reports of shooting on Utøya and poor security on the island itself. As the families of those shot and killed deal with their grief, many are raising questions over whether their loved ones could have been saved if the police helicopter had been put in service, if emergency phone lines hadn’t been overwhelmed, if police had better boats to get to the island, if, in general, things had been handled differently.
Admitting things went wrong
The government quickly set up a commission to evaluate the emergency response “and learn from it,” as Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg has said on countless occasions. But the criticism has continued and Storberget now admits things went wrong, while explaining why he intends to remain on the job.
Storberget said the responsibility he now feels involves finding ways “to reduce the pain for those injured and left behind,” also for “operative personnel,” both volunteers and those employed in his ministry and in public services for which his ministry is responsible, including the police.
“As leader, it’s (also) import for me to ensure that we have a good legal process and that the economic compensation (for victims) will be correct and adequate,” he told Aftenposten. “Rebuilding the Justice Ministry is an important part of what it means to take responsibility.”
‘Must tolerate criticism’
The ministry’s offices were destroyed in the bombing and Storberget, like thousands of other state employees, has been working from makeshift quarters. The circumstances under which Storberget and his staff are working would be challenging even without the criticism that’s arisen.
“We must tolerate that there are critical questions about our crisis readiness, and we have asked for an honest report from the July 22 Commission,” Storberget told Aftenposten. “There’s also a humble need to honor those who were on the front lines … police, emergency personnel, volunteers … and be careful about jumping to conclusions before the facts are on the table. We have to back up and support our operational personnel.”
Storberget told Aftenposten that he has asked himself every day since July 22 “could we have done more to stop the attacker?” He said he “acknowledges that mistakes were made … and we all must apologize, also myself.” In addition to learning from those mistakes, he promises more resources for preparedness and aid for victims.
Survivors brace for new media storm as well
Meanwhile, after another memorial event for survivors and victims’ families on Utøya over the weekend, the island re-opened for media visits and public on Monday. Those most affected by the massacre were warned to brace for another stream of stories and images from the island where so many were injured and killed.
“We’ve appreciated that so many people have stayed away from the island after July 22,” Torunn Kanutte Husvik, a survivor of the massacre and young politician for the Labour Party in Oslo, told newspaper Dagsavisen. “I hope that common sense will continue. It would have been ideal if survivors could have more time to deal with their grief before new pictures show up in the media.”
She said survivors were most worried about how the foreign media will handle the coverage. Norwegian media have shown more sensitivity, she noted, while reporters with no personal ties to Norway or the victims “have shown another morality and lack of empathy.”
The Labour Party youth organization AUF also cautioned survivors that “it can be difficult for many to see the pictures that will come on both TV and in the papers.” Media officials, meanwhile, claimed it was “important to take the island back,” describing Monday’s visit as part of the healing process. Around 130 journalists from 44 domestic and foreign media outlets had signed up for the escorted visits to Utøya.
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