Norway has preserved and nurtured its democratic values after the terrorist attacks of July 22, 2011, but hasn’t been good enough at warding off extremism, says Prime Minister Erna Solberg. Others claim there’s also been a reluctance to confront the hatred and right-wing nationalist extremism that drove a young white Norwegian man to carry out the attacks.
“I think we’ve been good at standing together and protecting our democracy,” Solberg told news bureau NTB this week. It took time, however, for Norway to take up the fight against extremism, she said, “and now we’ve seen more extreme attitudes in connection with the wave of migration and terror in other countries. In that sense, we have been a bit naive.”
Solberg’s comments come just as Norway’s police intelligence unit PST has registered growth in right-wing extremism in Norway. “The growth we’ve seen is first and foremost rooted in online activity,” PST chief Marie Benedicte Bjørnland told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) earlier this week. Bjørnland ties the growth to the refugee influx of last year, and said PST is now monitoring the situation closely.
Terrorist was ‘one of our own’
Solberg spoke at ceremonies Friday morning marking the fifth anniversary of the Norwegian right-wing extremist’s attacks on the Labour Party-led government at the time and the party itself. She drew connections to the more recent attacks in Nice, Istanbul and Ankara, Orlando, Paris and Brussels, which have been linked to Islamic extremists, and noted how terrorists want to divide and conquer societies.
“July 22nd taught us something important,” Solberg said while speaking at the site of the badly damaged government complex that was bombed five years ago. “Extremism can develop in all societies.” Also Norway’s, where the terrorist turned out to be a 32-year-old unemployed white man named Anders Behring Breivik, who was described as late as Friday morning by author and social commentator Pål Norheim as a “vain, unsuccessful businessman, a swindler who sold false diplomas, a powerless keyboard knight on more or less extreme websites.” Breivik is now serving Norway’s maximum prison term that may keep him in custody for life.
Concerns are rising that many Norwegians mostly wanted to just ignore or forget him instead of confronting the hatred and polarization that he represented, and addressing how one of their own could murder so many of his fellow Norwegians. A few years went by before the former secretary of the Labour Party Raymond Johansen, who now leads Oslo’s city government, began to suggest that it was time to address Breivik’s hatred. Even today, many people both in and outside Norway still associate extremism with Islamic fundamentalists, forgetting or choosing to overlook how a white self-professed Christian man single-handedly committed one of the worst attacks ever.
“Ironically enough, a view has developed that the danger (of terrorism) comes first and foremost from outside (Norway), even though the biggest attack in Norway came from one of our own,” says Henrik Syse, a member of the Norwegian Nobel Committee and senior researcher at the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO), He’s been leading a project about how Norwegian values have developed since the July 22 attacks, and told news bureau NTB recently that “July 22nd has of course plagued us, but some will argue that the attacks have influenced us less than could have been expected.”
Syse said that the fear of Islamists has been allowed to dominate much of the debate on extremism and terror in Norway. “You’d think the July 22 attacks would make it less legitimate to support the immigration critics ,” Syse notes, “but it can be argued that we more likely have a more immigration-critical climate during the past few years.”
Odd Einar Olsen, a professor at the University of Stavanger, agrees. “Now it seems that Muslims are the root of all evil, while everyone seems to forget what the July 22 terrorist stood for,” Olsen told NTB. “I think it’s strange that we who experienced his terror, and responded so beautifully at the time, have turned around later.” Others have claimed that the Norwegian response hailed by many including former prime minister and current NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg, which included lots of roses and concerts and expressions of solidarity, may well have amounted to “too many roses and not enough anger.”
Lack of ‘self-criticism’
Syse thinks Norway has emerged relatively well from its terror trauma with, as Solberg noted, democracy prevailing. “But I say ‘relatively’ well, because the question is whether we’ve been self-critical enough,” Syse said. “It took a long time before we began to pose critical questions about how the authorities handled the attacks, and it’s an open question as to whether we have been willing to engage in a self-critical debate about the nationalistic extremism that exists today, also in Norway.”
Magne Raundalen, a clinical psychologist, and Jon-Håkon Schultz of the national center for violence and traumatic stress (NKVTAS) have guided school teachers in Norway regarding how to discuss the terrorist attacks with young children in the classroom. Raundalen favours a direct approach: “I would say that a man attacked the government and then went to (Labour’s youth summer camp on the island of Utøya) and shot lots of young people,” Raundalen told Dagsavisen. “It was a mass-murder and a terrorist attack. When he blew up the government building it was because he was angry at the prime minister for letting so many people from other countries come to Norway to live here. Then he went to Utøya and killed people because many of the young people at the camp wanted to be politicians.”
Jan Erik Oppedal, a teacher at the intermediate school level, said he’s keen to use July 22 as a “reference point” when discussing terrorism in general with his students. “Many young people perhaps tie terror to a threat from the outside,” he said. “July 22 showed that the threat can also come from the inside. The terrorist was ‘one of us.'” He also tries to point out the risk of marginalizing people, who can then become radicalized.
Stian Bromark, editor of Agenda Magazine, has also expressed concern that the hatred and nationalism behind the July 22 attacks hasn’t been adequately addressed. Even the Labour Party itself seemed reluctant to discuss the issue, for fear of being accused of playing the victim role. Bromark reported recently that some teachers have been scolded by parents who think their teenagers are too young to learn about the terrorist attacks, while the students themselves don’t want to be shielded.
Prime Minister Solberg is now calling for more openness about the extremism behind the attacks in Norway. “We must work towards vaccinating the next generation against extremism, and teach those who did not experience July 22 that this treat doesn’t just come from the outside,” she told NTB. “It can also grow in our own society.”