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Hope in the Face of Terror

News & Features | October 23, 2011

Norway is an exceedingly quiet place. During the few weeks I spent there this summer, I found its peacefulness and pervasive solitude remarkable. People I met constantly spoke of the insularity of their fellow Norwegians. While it is as volatile politically as the next multi-party democracy, relative calm extends even to political discourse. The Norwegians are certainly not a people disposed towards the dramatic. Then, one man decided to rock the boat and brutally end dozens of lives in the process. The bombing of July 22 shattered more than just the windows of downtown Oslo. It sent shockwaves of frustration and sorrow creeping into every word, thought, movement, and touch of a people unaccustomed to such national grief.

In the months since that day, much has been made of the initial assumptions that the bombing was an act of Islamic terrorism. But consider the tense moments following the initial bombing. The people of Norway had never experienced such a horrific act. Witness the way in which the Oslo bombing took place, and I challenge you not to recall London in 2005 or Madrid in 2004. Within hours of the bombing, an obscure Islamist group named Helpers of the Global Jihad implied its involvement, claiming, “What you see is only the beginning, and there is more to come.”

Amidst this confusion, word started to trickle in about a shooting incident at a Labour Party Youth Camp in the small island of Utøya. “A shooting incident” became “a shooter” and then “an ongoing shooting spree,” until the world realized that a massacre had just taken place. A white Norwegian man was slaughtering young political activists—there was an undeniable shock packed into that realization. When he was caught, it turned out that Anders Behring Breivik had acted alone, fighting against the tide of multiculturalism that he found so distasteful.

There’s nothing pleasant about the Oslo bombing and the Utøya massacre. In one day, Norway witnessed the death of 77 innocent people in a surge of hateful and disgusting violence. I want to be clear—I am not trying to find silver lining in this horror. However, Norway and its people have something to teach us; they show us that even amidst this impenetrable darkness, there can be hope.

Governments across the world can learn from the reaction of the Norwegian government as the crisis unfolded. Throughout the process, officials refused to identify the attacks as an act of external terrorism until they themselves had evidence to label the event appropriately. Despite the overwhelming emotional nature of that day, government officials displayed restraint and sobriety as they addressed their nation.

Consider how countries such as the United States or India would react to such an event. A national crisis in today’s 24-hour news cycle creates immediate, definitive rhetoric. Politicians with visions of grandeur seek to channel the collective anger of their nations into a moment of national catharsis. While such grief does need to be addressed by government, taking action without allowing for a scarred people to heal can lead to dire consequences; following the terrorist attacks on Mumbai in 2008, troops amassed at the India-Pakistan border to the backdrop of politically-infused rhetoric.

The sobriety and sincerity of the Norwegian government allowed them to become a grounded and reliable source of information in a time when emotions ran high on a massive scale. Government here functioned first and foremost as the representatives of the people; it did not attempt to aggrandize its position to become a self-appointed cultural torchbearer. Acknowledging and addressing a national crisis does not require grandeur on the part of politicians. No leader attempted to become the “face” of the nation in its time of crisis. Even in a time of distress as great as this one, sensibility anchored the collective response of Norway.

Two days after the attack, a vigil was held in the streets of Oslo. Eight public figures spoke to the 150,000 people gathered, from the mayor of Oslo to the leader of the youth camp that was attacked. There was talk of healing, of democracy, and of grief. Not one of the speakers mentioned the word “revenge.” Solidarity came in many forms, through anecdotes, music, stories, and speeches. The prime minister discussed how “the warmth of response from people in Norway” evoked “the strongest weapon in the world—that is, freedom of expression and democracy.”

Undoubtedly, the context of each terrorist attack defines the subsequent reaction. Norway is a small country of under five million, and this attack came from a domestic terrorist acting alone. Nonetheless, in dealing with national grief, the calm but powerful response of the Norwegians this summer is a reminder that national mourning does not necessitate national anger.

As I stood in the crowd on the night of the vigil, copies of a classic Norwegian song, “For the Youth,” were handed out. My friend tried to coach me in Norwegian pronunciation as she began singing. Before we knew it, the music rippled through those nearby and dozens around us were singing. It is this kind of solidarity among strangers that makes Norway’s reaction to its national grief so remarkable. There was no narrative that sought to direct the nation’s moment of unity. There was no grand overhaul of society’s political underpinnings. There was a sensible, honest, and empowering reaction to terror.

Hidden among the statistics and statements of Norway’s tragic days this summer is an unusual story of hope. I leave it to the words of Crown Prince Haakon, who, on the night of the vigil, said it better than I ever could: “Tonight, the streets are filled with love.”