July 22nd 2011: The Utøya Massacre

I wrote this op-ed piece in the days following the July 22nd massacre in 2011. I had forgotten about it until someone dear to me asked me about it, and I dug it up again. I wrote it for the op-ed pages of The Pace Chronicle, the student newspaper at Pace University in New York, where I was the Opinion editor. I have edited it slightly for readability, phrasing, and some typos.

On July 22, Anders Behring Breivik, a 32-year-old Norwegian, set off a car bomb in downtown Oslo in the government district. He then continued on an hours-long shooting spree on the island Utøya, the site for the Labor Party's youth summer camp. Masquerading as a police officer pretending to have urgent information about the car bomb, for which he was responsible, he proceeded to murder 69 people and wound dozens more.

Added to the eight people killed in the bombing, the most recent count of casualties stand at 77 (although the actual number is still partially unknown). Needless to say, this sort of domestic terrorism could instil rage and despair in any sensible individual.

Breivik has been described as a Christian fundamentalist by the media, and although his self-published 1,500-page manifesto casts some doubt on this claim, he is, by all measures, a dogmatic extremist. His manifesto (of which large swaths have been directly lifted from the manifesto of Una-bomber Ted Kaczinksy) describes his attacks as necessary evils to combat the “threats of a multi-cultural society and that of Islam.” Breivik sees these as threats to the “pure, Christian character of Norway” and was somehow deluded into thinking that a violent outburst of mass-murder would be a step in the right direction.

Since the fatal events, there have been peaceful gatherings in all parts of my home country, public appeals for charity, speeches admonishing terrorism, and huge spikes in voter registration and membership increases for the moderate, left-wing political parties that control Parliament.

Although difficult, the appropriate response to these attacks are not ones of rage and advocating for revenge. Rather, it is support for the secular, humanist democracy that has made Norway one of the safest, most prosperous nations since the end of World War II. The calm and collected responses, such as these, from my family and friends encapsulate the collective response of the Norwegian people. Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg vowed that our country will fight back with “more democracy,” and promised a special investigation into the attacks to help the victims and their families help cope.

What makes me glad to call Norway my home is that there has not been a single (at least not public) outcry for the speedy return to “peaceful, religious values.” The Christian religion was seemingly complicit in compelling this blonde-haired, blue-eyed sociopath to kill 77 of his fellow humans in cold blood; he claims in his manifesto that his violent outburst was intended to spur a mass-return to the Christian, pre-multicultural values of eras past. Little did Breivik anticipate that the public reaction has been the diametrical opposite.

Norwegian writer and poet Nordahl Grieg said that “our country is so small that when someone falls, it is always a brother or a friend.” He was right. Although I personally knew no one who was affected by the attack, on the morning of July 23 I found myself in the bathroom of a Manhattan café, dry-heaving in haze of confusion and exasperation.

While my exchanges with my mother, as well as a public venting of anger on my Facebook page, were more of an expression of that primal rage that inevitably arises, I simultaneously asserted that I would be the first to defend democracy in the face of terrorism. Judging by the national, collective response of Norwegians everywhere, there is an entire nation backing each other up.

While it is impossible to do something about the isolated, psychopathic wildcards that occasionally pop up to assault us, it is a moral and civic duty to encourage the thoughtful and peaceful reproach of regressive politics of the kind that Breivik espoused. It is our first, and best, line of defense against a society ruled by fear, suspicion and xenophobia.

In the midst of despair and heartbreak it is comforting to know that I live in a nation that will not tear him limb from limb (which is not unthinkable in other parts of the world), but rather a nation that is now united by tolerance, freedom of expression, and support for democracy.