Norway’s post-Breivik openness is extremely admirable

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Few people would begrudge those who demand heightened and more extensive security measures after an attack as horrific as the one committed by Anders Behring Breivik in Norway last summer.

The methodical and callous nature of Breivik’s actions in Oslo and on the island of Utoya which left 77 dead – the majority of whom were children at the Norwegian Labour Party’s summer camp – could quite easily have provoked widespread hatred. The politics of paranoia could have begun to dominate Norway’s national discourse with little trouble.

Breivik’s demeanour on the first day of his trial can hardly have eased any vengeful desires. Utterly emotionless as the names of his victims were read out, including the injuries by which they perished, Breivik offered not the slightest hint of remorse or sadness for the anguish he caused.

And yet, later that morning in court Breivik was brought to tears when a video he made outlining his political manifesto was shown. The contrast was indeed stark and harrowing.

However, the country’s response at the time and since has been thoroughly uplifting.

Although it must be remembered that in the few hours after the bomb blast in Oslo – when a minority feared the attack had been conducted by so-called ‘Islamic extremists’ – some Muslims were attacked, Norway’s reaction has otherwise been deeply admirable.

In the United States after 9/11 the response was a far-cry from the openness and commitment to democracy Norway has shown. Reports of hate crimes against Muslims and Southeast Asians soared across the U.S. in the weeks after the tragedy and civil liberties were cast to aside as the ‘War on Terror’ took centre stage.

The reaction to the assassination of Bin Laden was revealing enough – hundreds of agitated Americans chanting ‘U.S.A.! U.S.A.!’ outside the White House.

Although the rhetoric of the UK’s response to 9/11 and 7/7 was somewhat more dignified, in terms of legislation, we did not recommit ourselves to democracy and instead sought the means to limit our liberty.

New Labour set the trend – ID cards, 28 days detention without trial, greater powers for the police – and sadly the coalition does not seem to have changed the direction of travel. The recent political furore surrounding email and internet snooping is a case in point.

Furthermore, access to our politicians is probably at an all time low, with David Cameron heavily criticised for walking from Downing Street to Parliament for PMQ’s shortly into his premiership. Parliament too from the outside seems more like a fortress than the centre of our democratic life judged on the tight security presence.

For perfectly understandable and sometimes justifiable reasons, we seized on the politics of paranoia and fear.

Whilst the fact that 9/11 and 7/7 were carried out by Al-Qaeda, whereas Norway’s massacre was committed by an affluent middle-class Norwegian is definitely worth noting, the comparison is still relevant and instructive.

In the aftermath, Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg acknowledged the need for improved policing – the response of the police to Breivik’s attack was much maligned – but the overriding message was one of openness and tolerance.

He called on Norway to commit itself to “more democracy, more openness and more political participation”. 200,000 Norwegians spontaneously took to the streets of Oslo in the days after the attacks in a remarkable showing of unity and love.

Many also used Facebook and Twitter to vent their anger at Fox News for initially attributing the attack to Islamic terrorism, as well as condemning the perpetually-ignorant Fox host Glenn Beck for comparing the political camp at Utoya to the Hitler youth.

Even though the trial is now underway, Breivik is being allowed to have his say. While for fear of him attempting to propagate his political views his testimony has been limited to five days, it will still be broadcast around Norway and the whole world.

In the UK we do not even televise court proceedings. Even if we did, it is impossible to imagine someone of Breivik’s political stance being given such a platform. We have even experienced this kind of approach in the Durham bubble (albeit on a completely different scale) when the Union Society was forced to cancel a debate in which BNP leader Nick Griffin had been scheduled to speak after the NUS promised chaos on Palace Green.

Norway should show us then that responding to hatred with greater hatred and fear achieves nothing.

Their politicians and even the families of victims have shown an eagerness to take on Breivik intellectually and morally, to reaffirm the civil liberties and tolerance they cherish. If only George Bush and Tony Blair had done the same.

Image from Dimitry Valberg on Flickr.

One thought on “Norway’s post-Breivik openness is extremely admirable

  • As a Norwegian, I find the strengthened commitment to democracy and openness admirable. Responding to the attacks with such unity and compassion was impressive. However, Stoltenberg’s adamance that the attacks should, in no way, change the country, is ridiculous, continuing the naivety that partially accounted for the delayed response to the shootings. As for televising parts of the court proceedings, this is giving Breivik exactly the sort of publicity he wants for his cause, turning the whole trial into one big PR stunt.

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