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What are they thinking?

Freelance journalist Pål Refsdal has become the latest adventurous Norwegian to get into serious trouble overseas and then ask the Norwegian Foreign Ministry to ride to his rescue. The incident raises serious questions about the mindsets of these people, and why they expect the state to bail them out.

News broke Thursday that Refsdal, known for being in precarious situations before, had been released by kidnappers in a dangerous province in Afghanistan. He’d been seized after traveling into an area that experienced foreign service personnel had warned him to avoid.

That didn’t stop Refsdal, who, according to newspaperAftenposten, already had pocketed NOK 1.2 million (about USD 212,000) from the state film institute (Norsk filminstitutt) to support his idea about making a documentary on the Taliban. State-funded Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) had given him another NOK 40,000 because it was interested in airing his documentary.

Armed with his fellow Norwegians’ tax money, Refsdal went on into Kunar Province on the notorious border to Pakistan. Refsdal and his interpreter were soon grabbed by kidnappers who demanded ransom money, the release of 12 Taliban prisoners and that Norway withdraw its troops from Afghanistan. Refsdal called the Norwegian embassy in Kabul the next day and asked for help.

Answering the call
As they’ve done before, embassy personnel and their colleagues back home in Oslo swung into action. By all accounts they worked intensely over the next several days to secure Refsdal’s release. Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Støre himself had to get involved and the timing was especially bad: He was on the verge of making a long-planned trip to Kabul himself — kept secret for security reasons — for important talks after the recent Afghan election. The last thing he needed was an incident like this. It all ended well, with Refsdal being released despite none of the kidnappers’ demands being met.

It’s unclear, though, whether the 46-year-old journalist has learned anything from the experience, or has any remorse for causing such a fuss. It takes a lot of what the Norwegians call frekkhet (audacity) to thumb one’s nose at official warnings from an embassy and then call the very same embassy for help.

It’s not the first time Støre has had to divert attention from important international issues to address the cries for help of wayward Norwegians abroad. In the past year alone he’s had to deal with a Norwegian mountain climber who needed help getting off Mount Everest (also after taking huge risks), young Norwegian women caught with lots of drugs in their suitcases in South America, and two young Norwegian men with dubious credentials arrested for murder in the Democratic Republic of Congo. In addition come all the Norwegians who run out of money while traveling overseas or get sick without having thought to secure international travel insurance.

Equally audacious criticism
What’s worse is the massive criticism that tends to erupt if Støre and his staff are viewed as not doing enough to help their fellow Norwegians in distress. In one memorable case, the father of one of the young men in Congo was given lots of air time on NRK to complain about the alleged lack of help given his son, who’s been portrayed as a mercenary in Africa. The father all but held the Norwegian government responsible if his son were to die in a Congo prison, or if a death sentence he’s been handed is carried out.

In that case, as in all the others, the taxpayer-funded ministry has been investing time and money trying to help Norwegians who seem to lack any concept of personal responsibility.

By comparison, US citizens would be ill-advised to expect that the US State Department would ride to their rescue if they’d gotten themselves into similar trouble. So why do so many Norwegians expect their Foreign Ministry to save them? Could it have anything to do with their being a product of the social welfare state? Are they raised with the mentality that the state will take care of them?

Støre is himself a strong advocate of the social welfare state and his Labour Party’s motto of fellesskap, or solidarity. Clearly, though, it can backfire, and the government must be allowed to expect a certain level of responsibility from its citizens as well.

(Story written November 13, 2009)
Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund

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