Abolish idyllic notions of Norway

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COMMENTARY
Foreigners arriving in Norway sometimes seem surprised that this country suffers from crime just like everywhere else. They can’t always seem to mesh the idyllic images of fjords, towering mountains and an egalitarian social welfare state with the often harsh realities of everyday life.

Here’s what was playing on NRK’s local radio newscast for Østlandet (the greater Oslo metropolitan area) as we drove out of town Saturday morning, heading for a hike in the woods:

** Police found a man dead in his home in Hakadal. They think he was murdered, and they were holding one of his acquaintances in custody.

** A man broke into a home in suburban Jessheim and threatened a family of five. The man was said to be a former neighbor of the family.

** A man was stabbed on Karl Johans Gate, the main boulevard through the heart of Oslo, and was in serious condition at Ullevål University Hospital.

As editor of Views and News from Norway, and earlier in my job producing Aftenposten’s News in English, I haven’t always bothered to pick up such items. This sort of crime, I figured, happens everywhere and certainly isn’t unique to Norway. I’ve opted instead to go after the stories that could help demystify Norway, explain its political system or share its culture. Or spread the latest moose news.

Maybe that’s been a mistake, because it appears I’ve failed to also get out the message that this land of scenic landscapes and goat cheese also struggles with things like theft, violence, fraud, rape and murder. I get lots of e-mail from readers and visitors who complain that Norway isn’t the spotlessly clean, safe haven of tranquility they expected. That’s the image many have. It’s wrong.

Last week, the building where I live suffered a break-in. Some thieves got past the security door from the garage, then apparently used a crowbar on the door into storage room. Nearly all the residents’ storage lockers were plundered.

“But this is NORWAY!” burst out one angry resident who spends most of his time in the United States. Yes, that’s right, but why should it be any different in Oslo than it is in Denver or Tucson or other mid-sized cities? It’s possible that many European cities actually have a higher crime rate than New York does now. Oslo also has gangs and shootings and a rising robbery rate. And it can’t all be blamed on immigrants. Crime has been around a lot longer than we have.

It should be said that Norwegians themselves seem to feel safer at home than they do abroad, and local police have felt obliged to run public awareness campaigns urging the locals to be every bit as cautious and aware of pickpockets in Oslo, for example, as they might be in London or Venice.

While crime rates have been rising in Norway lately, crime itself is nothing new. When I moved to Oslo 20 years ago, I had never experienced my car being vandalized or the target of attempted theft, even though I’d parked on the streets of Chicago, Tucson, Oakland, San Francisco and Honolulu. Maybe I’d just been lucky. In Oslo, my car was broken into three times in the first two years I was here. On my first trip to Oslo back in 1984, a car we’d borrowed had also been broken into.

Now Justice Minister Knut Storberget is trying to crack down on a rising crime wave linked to eastern Europeans and he’s been harshly criticized by opposition politicians for not paying enough attention to the problem during his past four years in office. Better late than never, perhaps. Some Norwegians are even starting to lean towards harsher punishments, since Norwegian jail and probation terms often seem ridiculously lenient compared with other countries’.

The point is that Norway is no utopia. It’s a lovely little country, but it ain’t perfect.

So be careful out there.

(Story written August 3, 2009)
Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund

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