Norway’s tragedy: contexts and consequences

The atrocities inflicted on Norwegian society by a far-right activist leave the country shocked and in mourning. They will have lasting effects even if their exact character is hard to foresee, says Thomas Hylland Eriksen.

By coincidence, I was in Oslo on Friday 22 July 2011. During this time of the year, the main holiday season in Norway, the cities tend to be empty and quiet. My teenage son was due to participate in a soccer tournament in Denmark, and I was there to accompany him to the boat before returning to our summer house on the south coast.

In the afternoon, as I was working in the garden and my son was practicing with his football, we heard a loud crash, as if lightning had struck. Dark clouds began to loom nearby. We didn't think any more about it. Only half an hour later, however, I was rung up by a friend who asked me to turn on my computer. From then onwards, events took an increasingly dramatic turn as the afternoon gave way to evening, evening to night, and gradually the full extent of the atrocities became known.

When the domestic media began to report on the blast in central Oslo, virtually everybody must have thought of extreme Islamic groups. At least one, unknown group which called itself "friends of global jihad", appeared to have taken responsibility for the attack on the web. Some experts said that the attack carried the “fingerprints” of al-Qaida. But when the first reports came of the shootings at Utøya - my son and I were in the car by then, on our way to the boat - the connection with international terrorism, Islamic or not, started to seem less likely.

Utøya, a tiny island on a picturesque lake about forty minutes' drive from Oslo, has for decades been the summer camp site of the youth wing of the Labour Party. To target this camp, a gathering of several hundred politically engaged youths from their early teens to their mid-20s, suggested a connection with domestic politics rather than a link to Norway's participation in the wars in Libya or Afghanistan.

The perpetrator was finally apprehended towards the end of what was already being described as the most tragic day in Norwegian history since the second world war. The attack on government buildings in central Oslo, which led the New York Times correspondent to describe “the usually placid” capital of Norway as a place resembling a war-zone, was suddenly a lesser concern; although physical destruction and human suffering, including the loss of at least seven lives, were very considerable. The massacre of youths trapped on Utøya, still difficult to fathom, was simply beyond belief.

The death-toll from Utøya, over ninety at the time of writing, is likely to increase in the coming days. The police investigation and interrogation of the perpetrator, Anders Behring Breivik, will continue in order to understand the context of this catastrophe. We are still in a collective state of shock and disbelief, yet it is necessary, even now, to take a step back and begin to reflect on the consequences of this tragedy for Norwegian society. I can think of three.

The contours of change

Before the shootings at Utøya were reported, commentators on national radio and TV spoke about political violence and terrorism, drawing parallels with the attacks on Nairobi, London, and Madrid (and, of course, New York and Washington). As it later became clear that the acts were committed by one man (possibly with an accomplice), a comparison with the attack on the federal building in Oklahoma and Timothy McVeigh appeared more pertinent. This is relevant for the political interpretation of the tragedy, since it must be understood in domestic terms.

The first consequence and the main message to Norwegian society is thus that citizens can never again be or feel entirely safe.

Psychologically, it may even be more difficult to live with the memories of the horrors in the knowledge that the perpetrator could have been a neighbour rather than a foreign fanatic. The mass murderer is after all a good-looking young man from the plush western suburbs of Oslo, with no diacritica singling him out as dangerous, but clearly fuelled by immense hatred of the spineless, politically-correct elite who had sold out the country to foreign invaders.

In this sense it feels more like a natural disaster than a terrorist attack: a kind of tragedy against which one cannot fully protect oneself. A registered farmer, Mr Breivik could easily purchase chemical fertiliser; and both police uniforms and firearms can be obtained on the black market. It is impossible to rule out the possibility that something similar might happen in the future, and no act of prevention would be sufficient. This is why the catastrophe feels more like a tsunami than anything else.

Second, the fact that Mr Breivik was associated with right-wing, anti-Islamic currents in Norwegian society ought to lead to consequences. The recent years have seen a proliferation of hate-speech against immigrants, and Muslims in particular, on certain websites; some defenders of cultural diversity (myself included) are routinely attacked in vaguely threatening ways for betraying Norwegian culture and western values by taking an inclusive and liberal stance towards minorities and immigration.

Mr Breivik was an active contributor to at least one such website, www.document.no, which is itself strongly influenced by the so-called “Eurabia” literature - the cluster of publications based on the assumption that Islam is incompatible with western values, which and sometimes also intimates that Muslims are plotting to achieve political dominance in western Europe. Persons who hold such views have until now been treated respectfully by the establishment media, and have often been given ample space to present their views. There have been attempts to rehabilitate racist pseudo-science (also publicised by leading media); and it is common to see (especially on the web) crude generalisations about Muslims, as well as aggressive denunciations of politicians and other defenders of the new Norway.

Norway has changed rapidly in terms of population. Immigration to the country has grown fast, and some tensions are bound to result from this.

Persons with a minority background (first or second generation) now make up about 10% of the population, slightly over half of non-European origin. However, in order to prevent refugees, family members of immigrants settled in the country and labour migrants from central and eastern Europe from coming to Norway, this society would have to change almost beyond recognition. Norway is a liberal, open society which is integrated with the outside world in a million ways, from cheap Chinese imports and Hollywood films to studies abroad and oil exports.

Immigration policies in Norway are not unusually liberal compared with other western European countries; but the wealth and stability of this oil-rich country have made it something of an immigrant magnet in recent years. This is why it would be inaccurate to speak of Mr Breivik and his co-believers as cultural conservatives. Cultural reactionaries would be more precise; they envision a society which no longer exists.

Third, the domestic political scene will be affected by the events, although it is too early to tell in which direction and for how long. The Labour Party will probably receive a number of sympathy votes. The right-wing Progress Party, with which Mr Breivik had been associated in the past, may suffer a setback.

The tragedy in Oslo and at Utøya was not a dramatic version of the well-rehearsed story of the “clash of civilisations”: the west versus Islam. The attacks were in the event the polar opposite of the terrorist acts in Madrid (2004) or London (2005). Yet there are similarities. Norway has, as some observers say, lost its innocence. The trusting, secure, easygoing society to which we have been accustomed, is under threat.

Parts of it may revive and and even in some ways emerge strengthened out of this tragedy. But whether aware of it or not, we doubtless woke on Saturday morning to a slightly more paranoid, slightly less pleasant society. A society where we have become aware of our fundamental vulnerability.

About the author

Thomas Hylland Eriksen is professor in the department of social anthropology at the University of Oslo. His books include What is Anthropology? (Pluto Press, 2004); Small Places, Large Issues: An Introduction to Social and Cultural Anthropology (Pluto Press, 3rd edition, 2010); and Ethnicity and Nationalism: Anthropological Perspectives (Pluto Press, 3rd edition, 2010). His website is here

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Thomas Hylland Eriksen is professor in the department of social anthropology at the University of Oslo. His books include What is Anthropology? (Pluto Press, 2004); Small Places, Large Issues: An Introduction to Social and Cultural Anthropology (Pluto Press, 3rd edition, 2010); and Ethnicity and Nationalism: Anthropological Perspectives (Pluto Press, 3rd edition, 2010). His website is here

Also by Thomas Hylland Eriksen in openDemocracy:

"The paranoid phase of globalisation" (24 October 2001)