NEWS ANALYSIS: Two young Norwegians gazed quietly on Sunday at the island of Utøya, scene of last summer’s massacre that left 69 persons dead. Two days earlier, another mourner from Iraq had reacted far more loudly and angrily in the courtroom where the man who carried out the massacre is on trial. Perhaps it took a foreigner to get others in the courtroom to finally let off some steam as well.
For nearly 10 months, since Norwegians were stunned by the attacks planned and executed by one of their own, most of the public mourning for Anders Behring Breivik’s victims has been characterized by flowers and song, lots of hugging and quiet tears. The restraint shown among survivors and victims’ families sitting through the most horrible testimony, day after day for the past five weeks, has been remarkable. The Norwegians have received international attention, not just for the terrorist attacks themselves, but for the way they have reacted to them.
Most of the attention has been positive, including both amazement and admiration over the sheer lack of emotional outbursts. Others, though, including some local health care professionals, have expressed concern. Where’s the anger? How natural is it, they wondered, to remain so visibly unemotional in the face of such a national tragedy?
Hayder Mustafa Qasim wondered, too. His brother Karar Mustafa Qasim, age 19, was among the 69 persons gunned down by Breivik on July 22 last year and Hayder was flown in to Oslo last Wednesday, courtesy of the Norwegian government, to represent his family in the courtroom when Karar’s autopsy report would be handled. Hayder spent most of Thursday, and Friday morning, in the courtroom observing the proceedings and seeing his brother’s killer in person for the first time.
“I sat there and looked around the courtroom,” he told reporters later on Friday. “I couldn’t understand how other people could just sit there, so passively, and be so professional about what was being said. They’d all had their lives ruined by the murderer. I started to shake.”
By late morning, Hayder Mustafa Qasim reached his own personal breaking point. He suddenly stood up and threw his shoe at Breivik, a deeply insulting act back home in Iraq. And he started yelling in the otherwise so restrained and controlled courtroom: “You killed my brother! Go to hell! Go to hell! You are a killer!” And he broke into tears.
“He (Breivik) looked me right in the eye,” Qasim told newspaper Aftenposten on Saturday. “I knew that he had understood my message.”
As reported shortly after the incident, Breivik was quickly hustled out of the courtroom by police, while Qasim was restrained by other police officers and taken out of the courtroom as well, but not before other previously stoic mourners had started clapping, yelling “bravo” and bursting into tears themselves. As one observer put, it was as if a pressure cooker finally exploded, but to the great relief of all.
One psychologist said later that Qasim’s highly un-Norwegian reaction was exactly what the Norwegians needed. It was about time to stop being so strong and reserved, and show the anger they’d been holding back. Espen Gamlund, an assistant professor of philosophy at the University of Bergen, agreed, writing in newspaper Dagsavisen this week that anger and indignation “are normal human reactions. It must be allowed to express just how painful this feels.”
For Qasim, the attacks of last July were yet another tragedy for a family that already had been severely challenged like so many other families in Iraq. Aftenposten reported that Qasim’s father fled Iraq, is now a refugee in Shanghai and he wasn’t allowed to travel to Norway. Qasim’s teenaged brother had also fled Iraq, arriving in Norway alone as a young asylum seeker just three years ago. Karar Mustafa Qasim started learning Norwegian, became involved with the Labour Party’s youth organization AUF, got the opportunity to attend its annual summer camp on Utøya and was an active football player keen to win the camp’s tournament for his new home county of Akershus. Until he was shot along with so many others by Breivik.
“My brother was killed on Utøya, he was alone in Norway, with no family,” Qasim told Aftenposten. “The murderer killed him and destroyed my life and my family’s. I traveled from Iraq to Norway to be present in the courtroom. And it made an enormous impression on me.”
‘A very strong thing to do’
Qasim’s presence clearly made an impression on others as well. “He yelled out what we all were feeling,” said Unni Espeland Marcussen, the mother of one of Breivik’s other victims. “It was a very strong thing to do.” Frode Elgesem, an attorney for many of the other victims’ families, said he wasn’t surprised that an emotional outburst finally came.
“This wasn’t a violent attack, as I saw it,” Elgesem told news bureau NTB. “I viewed the outburst as a desperate expression of despair.” Christin Bjelland, a spokesperson for one of the many victims’ support groups, expressed understanding for Qasim’s reaction, noting that the difficult testimony and examination of the autopsy reports can spark many strong feelings.
Court proceedings this week have centered mostly on testimony from survivors of Breivik’s attacks, many of whom were seriously wounded. One young woman testifying on Tuesday described how she was first shot in the arm and immediately thought she’d survive that. Then a bullet ripped through her jaw, “and I thought that was more serious,” and when a third bullet hit her in the chest, “then I thought I would die.”
The determination she’s shown to return to a normal life after the horror of July 22 and lengthy hospital stays reflects admirable strength. She’s mourning but moving forward, she said. Qasim’s reaction on behalf of his late brother was strong in another way.
When it was met by applause by fellow mourners, “then I knew I’d done the right thing,” Qasim said. “And that I’d done what many others surely wanted to do. I could feel the tension in me letting go, and a sense of calm fell over me.”
The trial, meanwhile, resumed after a brief recess and there once again was order in the courtroom. Gamlund, the assistant professor, said further outbursts may come and should be welcomed, calling them “an important corrective” that’s as natural and even dignified as waving roses. The government, meanwhile, has introduced new legislation that can keep Breivik in a high security prison instead of a psychiatric institution even if he’s determined to be insane. His trial will continue for another five weeks.
Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund
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