Norwegian police have come under increasing criticism over their response to the terrorist attacks of July 22, but details released this week help explain the extraordinary pressure they were under. Many survivors and the families of victims, meanwhile, are basically telling the critics to shut up.
Police from the various jurisdictions involved in the bombing of government headquarters and a massacre on the island of Utøya addressed the criticism on Thursday and also revealed transcripts of the calls made to police by terrorist Anders Behring Breivik. A government commission will investigate the response and the police will file their own full report as well, with some of the problems they faced already appearing to be political in nature.
But as commentator Inge D Hanssen, an expert on criminal cases in Norway, wrote in newspaper Aftenposten on Friday, only one person is ultimately responsible for the tragedy of July 22: Terrorist Anders Behring Breivik himself. Many of Breivik’s surviving victims agree.
His own credibility upon calling in to police twice himself on the early evening of July 22 was dubious at best. In the chilling transcript released by police at the urging of attorneys for survivors and Breivik’s own defense attorney, he referred to himself as “Commander Anders Behring Breivik of the Norwegian anti-communist resistance movement,” said he was on Utøya and wanted to give himself up, but then broke off the call.
When he rang on another number 26 minutes later, after having continued to gun down members of the Labour Party’s youth summer camp and just before he was arrested, he identified himself as “commander of the Knights Templar Europe … organized in the anti-communist and Norwegian resistance movement against the Islamification of Europe and Islamification of Norway.” He claimed he had “completed” his “operation” and wanted to speak to the leader of the police’s special Delta force. Then he broke off the conversation again.
One police sergeant handled dozens of calls
The first call about shooting on Utøya came in at 5:27pm, according to police logs. Then the calls poured in, with 40 waiting at one point as the harried police sergeant on duty alone tried to handle them all, telling frantic campers calling in to “hide” or “lay still and pretend you’re dead.” Many did so, and survived.
Then came all the calls from worried parents and friends, and finally from Breivik himself, at 6pm and again at 6:26pm. By then, heavily armed police were landing on the island and Breivik was taken into custody.
The woefully inadequate staffing of the Nordre Buskerud police switchboard on a Friday evening in the middle of traditional summer holidays will continue to be a target of criticism, and, as Hanssen noted, must be addressed with more resources from politicians in charge. But the picture that’s finally emerged of what actually happened on Friday evening July 22, just two hours after downtown Oslo was rocked by a massive bomb and commanded the nation’s attention, supports claims that the local police did the best they could with the resources available in a highly stressed situation.
The criticism of police actions, which began immediately in foreign media and later in Norwegian media, isn’t entirely justified by the new information released this week. Reports that Breivik had called police as many as 10 times were apparently untrue. Reports that it took several hours for police to arrive on the island were also untrue. While response time was longer than the 10 minutes or less that’s normally the goal, Breivik was in police custody around an hour after the first alarms were received.
Initial calls from terrified campers also gave police reason to believe there were as many as five terrorists on the island. That required a different sort of operation than what ultimately proved to be the case. Police have accepted criticism over the lack of a force standing by to use their police helicopter, but defended their use of the boats available to get to the island. It was a difficult location to reach in a crisis situation.
Bashing a ‘witch hunt’
More answers and information will likely continue to emerge as the massive investigation into the terrorist attacks continues, but victims’ families and survivors were themselves calling on the critics and the media to refrain from what some called a “witch hunt.”
Arne Okkenhaug, the father of one of the victims on Utøya, agreed with Hanssen that in the end, only Breivik himself can be responsible for the killings on July 22. In a personal commentary published in Aftenposten on Friday, Okkenhaug wrote that he and his wife have felt a need to shield themselves from speculation and criticism in the media after losing their 15-year-old son Emil.
“I want to stress that it’s the man who took Emil from us, who alone is responsible for this,” Okkenhaug wrote. “I have respect for the need to minimize (the possibility) this can happen again, but I will not accept sensational focus on a hunt for scapegoats.”
Magnus Håkonsen, an 18-year-old survivor of the massacre, also said he was repelled by the criticism, speculation and “what if” reports that have appeared in the media and in online debates and reader comments.
“I’m so lucky, it’s only luck that I’m alive,” Håkonsen told Aftenposten. “He (Breivik) had several opportunities to shoot me, but he missed.” Håkonsen’s feelings of good luck, though, are overshadowed by the criticism of police actions from people who he feels have no idea what they’re talking about.
“The speculation and criticism of the police now, so early and while many are still in deep sorrow, interrupts the grieving process,” said Håkonsen, who lost many friends on July 22. He’s preparing an official complaint against attorneys and media who he thinks are exploiting the tragedy for their own gain. Meanwhile, more than 15,000 Norwegian have joined a social media group protesting the “witch-hunt of the police.”
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