Friday, July 29, 2011

Finally, some thoughts on Oslo and Utøya

This is a post I've been avoiding writing for nearly a week. I've been trying to put together my reactions to the attacks in Oslo and Utøya, but am really struggling to get my thoughts to be at all eloquent or coherent. (In fact, I had a post ready to go on Monday, but then our internet failed, and the post was lost. I haven't had the emotional energy to sit down and address the subject matter again.) I feel like everything that I write is just repeating what every other news report has said, and my own personal insights are rather limited. I actually haven't spoken with any "real" Norwegians about the attacks, so I can't even offer a first-hand story of how a "real" Norwegian feels. And in some ways, I feel like my point of view isn't so important. I feel like an outsider, an imposter; but then again, Norway is now my home. For better or worse. And good times, and in bad.

It is shocking. It is unfathomable. The numbers defy my imagination. I do not profess to understand much about Norway's political system, but Norway has always felt peaceful to me, a quiet, respectful land keeping to itself in the north. One rarely sees the police on the street and they are never armed, you don't need to take off your shoes in the Oslo airport, political leaders and star Olympic athletes have their home phone numbers listed in the phone book, and nearly every mail box has the entire family's names listed on them: Lars, Mari, Olav, Sigrid and Ingrid. We've been so hard-wired in the US to look out for kidnappers, I think: who's to stop the dirty old man down the street from luring Sigrid and Ingrid into his van, calling them by name? 

But, I digress.  

The young people who gathered on the island came from communities all across Norway. They were leaders with and interest in politics, and going to the summer camp run by the Labor Party was a great privilege. As a result, every community or region in the nation has been personally touched by this massacre. Every area either had children that survived or children that were lost, so the entire country is deeply grieving. I watched a news report of about a dozen teens flown home together on a charter plane to some of the northern most cities in Norway, being welcomed on the tarmac by their families, several days after the tragedy. Watching these kids collapse into their parents arms in tears was absolutely heart-wrenching. I can't imagine the images in their memories, and don't know what can be done to help erase them.

I am very grateful that Greta is only 3, and that I can--for the time being--protect her from the stories and images. I noticed a father at the grocery store with his two elementary aged kids, and they all gazed at the  collection of newspapers at the check-out line. Even a year or two older, she would be astute enough to ask about the broken buildings or the parades of flowers, or the pictures of people crying and hugging. I know I won't be able to avoid these difficult parenting situations for long, or even this particular story. This is by far the darkest day in Norway's history, and will be recognized and taught in schools from this day forward, I'm certain of it. 

I have been most impressed with the strength and courage that so many of these kids have demonstrated when they talk of returning to Utøya. When I learned that this was an annual camp, something that has been going on since the 1970s, I thought, "they are going to board up those doors, and no one will every step foot on that island again." Instead, the day following the attack, the leaders of the Youth Organization were declaring, "we're going back. We're taking back that island." I am humbled by such profound displays of courage.

And now for displays of cowardice. Erik read a newspaper article that described the treatment that some Muslims received in the first few hours following the bombing. Insults, blame and finger-pointing, including one woman saying to a Pakastani neighbor who has lived in Norway for over 10 years, "You did this. You did this bombing". Muslims make up 10% of Norway's population, according to a news report I heard the other day, but this is a fairly recent phenomenon. By recent, I mean in the last 30-40 years. "Recent" is a relative term, when you consider Norway's history of a fairly homogenous society and race. And while I believe that most Norwegians are open and accepting to immigrants, it's obviously not an easy process for anyone.

I think Norwegians are very shocked by the fact that this tragedy came from a native Norwegian. It would be--and was--very easy to blame a Muslim terrorist for the attack, and to find excuses and explanations for his actions. "He doesn't understand our values," "he's doesn't believe in the same God as we do" "he doesn't appreciate what it means to be Norwegian". Then again, the same can be said for Anders Behring Breivik. I don't think there are too many people--Norwegian or otherwise--who believe in a God who would endorse this. 


  1. Well written, Emily. I was thinking the same thing as you- how would you even start to explain a day like last Friday to a small child? You want to be honest and straightforward but careful not to reveal certain facts and shield them from certain images...

  2. As a "real" norwegian I have to say that I'm touched by your words. After the 22/7 the swedish and danish said "today we are all norwegian". I think that might go for you too, Emily, because this was spoken like a true norwegian.

  3. We're thinking about you guys a lot these days. Hatcher is already hitting us with those tough topics. He'll catch a few words on NPR and start asking questions. We've actually had interesting talks about Egypt, Iraq, and the US debt crisis. I've been sheltering him from this tragedy though. Neither of us is ready for that discussion. Thanks for sharing, Emily.

  4. I didn't read this before writing my own blog post on the subject, but it looks like we share a lot of the same mixed emotions. Like you, I started wondering yesterday about how safe/unsafe we really are. What's to stop some crazy nut from shooting me right here in the grocery store? I thought. But that is irrational fear talking. We are the same safe today as we were a month ago. We just know more about the crazy people out there.

    My son is 9 and has needed to talk and talk and talk about it. I read in Aftenposten today that info packages have been sent to all the schools in Norway to help kids deal with the tragedy upon their return. School cannot start soon enough! I need C to be able to talk to someone else about it! (I'm running dry on answers...)

    Glad you posted this as it helps to hear what other expats think and feel.

    Oh - and I also read a report that said that Norway has the fastest growing Muslim population in Europe. So that is certainly putting a strain on a fairly homogeneous and traditional society.

  5. Excellent post, Emily. You really hit it when you said that every corner of Norway was affected by this tragedy, since the young people traveled from all over the country to Utøya.

    I, too, have been unbelievably impressed with the way Norwegians have responded to this horror (with exception, of course, to those who lashed out at their neighbors). I feel safe in thinking the country will not turn a dark corner as a result of one man's violence.

    I walked in the fakkeltog here with some friends who brought their 5- and 7-year-olds and was fairly blown away by the way they were able to talk to their children about why we were all there. You'll find your own way with Greta when you have to, no worries.