Norway seeks to keep peace amid homegrown terror

July 25, 2011 - 12:43 PM
Norway Explosion

People gather outside Oslo City Hall to participate in a

OSLO, Norway (AP) — Confessed terrorist Anders Behring Breivik hoped to trigger a nationalist revolution in Norway. But his double act of mass murder and destruction seems to have stirred only dignified defiance in this wealthy, idealistic nation renowned for its commitment to peace.

The capital's heart remains shattered and cordoned off following Friday's car-bomb blast. Communities up and down this sparsely populated land of fir forests and mist-shrouded fjords have yet to bury their 76 loved ones, mostly slain as Breivik gunned down defenseless teens and young adults at an island retreat of the governing Labor Party.

But families, workmates and communities are already coming together to discuss the need for Norway to protect the best of what it is — a tolerant society open to the world. Many even express a paradoxical sense of relief that it was a local, not an al-Qaida outsider, who sought to turn their well-ordered world upside down.

"These quite unimaginable attacks have challenged our national character, but they will not be able to alter our national characteristics," said Geir Lundestad, director of the Nobel Institute that helps select the winner of each year's Peace Prize in Oslo.

"Even in these terrible days we have seen some of our sense of openness, democracy, equality come to the fore. Even our king and queen show they are one of us, they weep with the rest of the country," Lundestad told The AP in an interview.

Whereas other nations struck by terror have responded quickly with heavy security-force deployments and clampdowns on civil liberties, that is not apparent in Norway today.

What remains so striking to a foreign visitor is how calm, and how easily accessible, Norwegian citizens and institutions remain.

Those arriving at Norway's airports still face only perfunctory ID checks. The pairs of soldiers who guard roads on the perimeter of Friday's central Oslo blast zone appear to be the absolute minimum that Western societies typically deploy in the wake of a terrorist attack.

Perhaps most surprisingly, leaders of the government and the royal family continue to visit the scenes of greatest tragedy — the bomb zone, hospitals, hotels where parents still await news of their missing child — with barely a cop or bodyguard in sight. The security buffer between the ruling elite and common man appears nonexistent.

Instead, it is the public at large that has mobilized in support of the forces of reason, moderation and sharing the burden of grief. Central Oslo florists struggled Monday to maintain supplies as long lines formed outside.

"It will take a long time for people to grasp the vastness of this atrocity. But people are seeking answers together. They are seeking the community of others, the warmth and support of each other," said the Rev. Carl Petter Opsahl in the square beside Oslo Cathedral.

He spoke shortly after more than 10,000 people crowded into the spot, beside a sea of floral bouquets and hand-written tributes to the innocent dead, to observe a minute's silence.

The sea of faces included Oslo citizens of every color and faith, reflecting the rapid demographic shifts under way as Norway's liberal government offers an open door to asylum-seekers from war-torn parts of Asia, the Middle East and Africa.

Today about a tenth of Norway's 4.9 million residents are foreign-born and around 5 percent Muslim, still far below the norm for Europe. Most, particularly those from predominantly Muslim nations, have arrived since the mid-1990s — a sudden shift that the profoundly Islamophobic writings of 32-year-old Breivik denounced as something to be feared and fought.

Many Norwegians concede this is the key fault line lying deep, and until now dormant, beneath their society. But last week's atrocity may also cause Norwegians to rethink hardening attitudes towards Muslims in their midst.

"We would be looking today at a truly unstabilized Norway if the attacks had been committed by a heavily bearded al-Qaida activist who had just been offered asylum here. But no, our true demon turns out to be this clean-cut middle-class boy from the suburbs of Oslo, a 100 percent product of Norway," said Thomas Hylland Eriksen, an anthropologist at the University of Oslo who is expert in the forces of multiculturalism in modern Norway.

He said those right-wing extremists who, like Breivik, seek "a trip back in time to the racial purity of pre-war Norway" will now likely face far greater police scrutiny. "At least I hope so."

Lundestad of the Nobel Committee noted that while left-wing Labor has dominated Norway's governments since World War II, around a quarter of citizens in opinion polls express "very strong views against immigration, particularly from Muslim countries."

But he said there was nothing to prepare Norway for its version of American anti-government extremists such as "Unabomber" Ted Kaczynski or Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh.

"If you had asked me in advance whether this act of epic violence could have happened in Norway, and be committed by a seemingly normal Norwgian, I would say this impossible," he said.

The country's second-largest party, right-wing Progress, offers the major public platform for anti-Muslim views but has never won enough votes to form a government. It likewise has condemned the actions of Breivik, a one-time party member who wrote of his alienation that it wasn't hard-line enough.

Opsahl, who helps run an interdenominational Christian mission in central Oslo with strong involvement from new immigrants, said he believes members of racial minority groups could have faced assaults on the street had Friday's attacks been the work of Muslim extremists.

He said a few Muslim men were roughed up in the immediate aftermath of the bombing before news bulletins started reporting the blond, blue-eyed appearance of the arrested Utoya Island gunman.

"As a citizen of Oslo, it's a relief that the attacker was Norwegian. It would become very difficult to be a Muslim or an immigrant in Oslo if it had been committed by al-Qaida or the like," Opsahl said.

Lundestad said while security measures would be beefed up around government buildings and leaders, the impact of Breivik's terror would be limited on daily life.

"If this violence had been Islamic-related, the security and political debate in Norway would be entirely different," he said. "There would be a massive support for harsher measures towards the Islamic world and immigrants.

"But how do we guard against future acts by a seemingly normal Norwegian? How do we introduce security measures to guard a community or society against one hidden lunatic? This is the true dilemma that Norway now faces."