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Utøya

We weren't in front of a TV for the memorial broadcast, but we had it on the car radio as we sat on the ferry in the rain. Using a law that has scarcely been invoked since the war, Norway's government had compelled all broadcast channels to put out the two-hour event live from the biggest venue in Oslo, although such compulsion was hardly necessary—it's unlikely they would have shown anything else. When it came to the part where they read out the names of the 67 people who had been killed, mostly teenagers, my brother would occasionally interject with comments like, “That was my colleague's son... She was the daughter of the guy who runs the restaurant near me... She was in the year above my stepsister”. The service finished with five minutes of the ferry journey left to run. We got out of the car to stretch our legs and found that almost every car on the deck still had its occupants sitting in it. They had been listening to the broadcast too. Many of them were crying.

In a small country with, at best, two degrees of separation, an event on the scale of the killings at Utøya will affect a greater percentage of the population than it would somewhere larger. Echoes of these kids are everywhere. My niece has just started high school, and the name above hers in the front of her French textbook is a local girl who was shot at point blank range. Everyone at the very least knows someone who knows someone, and I'm convinced that this has had an enormous effect on the response of the media in subsequent weeks. Most families have not wanted to speak to the press so have been left well alone. Those who have granted interviews have been treated with care. A month after the killings, the families of those killed were invited to the island to spend the day there and be addressed by the prime minister. The media remained on the mainland, merely showing a distant shot of the crowd of people sitting on the same hill their children had sat on a month before and listening to his speech; even some laughter and gentle applause drifted across the water. I am certain that this respectful distance was maintained because there was hardly a journalist who was entirely unconnected to, and therefore unaffected by, what had happened.

That's not to say that the press always necessarily maintained its dignity. Every front page for a month yelled about nothing else, even though some mornings there wasn't a great deal to yell about; the papers fell on the memorial service gratefully, since by that stage they had pretty much been reduced to running interviews with the last person to cut Anders Breivik's hair. Still, when it came to dealing with those left behind, the Norwegian papers were exemplary and I found it instructive to envisage how our own journalists, statistically unlikely to be connected with anyone who might be involved in such an event over here, would behave in similar circumstances.

The person who invites the most comparisons, though, has been the Norwegian prime minister, Jens Stoltenberg. In the first hours and days after a national trauma, it's only natural that a population is nervous and malleable. Their long-term reaction can be, if not dictated, then certainly heavily influenced by the signals they are given by their leaders. If you are given messages of vengeance and rage, it's all too easy to give way to that impulse, let your hackles rise and fall into line. But your reaction is likely to be different if from the earliest moments you are told, “Remember what makes us us. We were attacked precisely because it is worth treasuring. We are tolerant and open and we must preserve that at all costs”. This was what Norwegians were being told even before it became clear who they were under attack from; after all, initial suspicions after the Oslo bomb blast had after all fallen on radical Muslims (often voiced by the sort of pundits who stopped calling the whole thing “terrorism” once they discovered that the perpetrator was white). In the weeks that followed, Stoltenberg's simple and powerful speeches stressed peace and unity and urged his country to reinforce the positive values for which it had come under attack in the first place.


Predictable this may be, but I am forced to weigh that response to an outbreak of stunning malevolence and resultant national trauma against two fairly recent English-speaking examples. We have of course all benefited enormously from George Bush's hunting down and punishing the evildoers, but the other response I have in mind is from much closer to home. The trauma in this country was simply not on a par with mass murder but David Cameron's reaction to the riots that occurred on his watch was still illuminating. Fresh from his holiday in Tuscany, from which he was finally persuaded to return as it became clear the rioting would continue for a third consecutive night, he crossly threatened to punish those responsible. A fair enough response to criminal behaviour, certainly, but it became clear that he and his Cabinet were firmly and exclusively in punitive mode, blaming only one stratum of society. Quite apart from his nonsense about water cannon and somehow banning the internet (quietly dismissed by the police and his own government departments), Cameron's response was vindictive, narrow and petty, and spoke only to his friends and sympathisers. There was nothing to suggest that he was also the prime minister of those who had transgressed, and no incentive offered to those who felt they had landed outside society's margins to rejoin it.

Since the riots Cameron's response has emphasised one particular element: the accusation that part of the country has suffered a moral collapse. This is,of course a guaranteed method of bringing a population together: by pointing the finger at the poorer ones and telling them they have no morals. You can tell who the moral people are, he was saying, because they're the ones with all the money. To proudly present that logic amid the fallout from this year's revelations of corruption in the police, politics and the media displays a collapse of imagination that does not inspire confidence in a leader.

Once or twice I asked people in Norway if we could borrow their prime minister for a bit, at least until he had maybe managed to quell the worst of the kneejerk yelling over here, but they all said they rather needed him at the moment.

Comments

( 6 comments — Leave a comment )
communicator
Sep. 21st, 2011 10:04 am (UTC)
This is a great piece. That point about your niece's textbook is - is astonishing. I hope it's OK to link to this.
webofevil
Sep. 21st, 2011 10:09 am (UTC)
Of course, and thank you.
strictlytrue
Sep. 21st, 2011 03:06 pm (UTC)
Thanks for this - it was beautiful and fascinating when you told me about it on the weekend, and it only gains in these qualitites in your rendering of it here.
therealjo
Sep. 21st, 2011 05:00 pm (UTC)
As always H, a valuable and eloquent discussion of such an awful thing. I really got the sense in Denmark that the size of the country affected their involvement in, say, politics, and their responses to difficult issues.

Your point about DC not for a second considering that he's the PM for everyone is prescient, and of course at the heart of Tory philosophy - I'm looking after me and mine, bvgger the rest of you. Until you come knocking on our door, of course, and then I'll run you off my land with a shotgun. Peasants.

(thank you)
undeadbydawn
Sep. 22nd, 2011 12:12 am (UTC)
this is rather embarrassing: I know absolutely nothing about the tragedy you describe here. No reports, anywhere. That's disconcerting since I choose my sources on the grounds that I believe I'll get a good rounded and well written cross-section of important news. Evidently I do not.

Your post is beautiful. Relating to your closing statements, I could not agree more. The reactions of Cameron and the entire political class has been vulgar, ignorant, authoritarian and utterly wrong. Worse than that, the quality of reporting and argument has deflected general public consensus from looking at societal causes to punishment.

I would like to believe that the people I share this island with are generally of high intelligence and sociologically aware. I am once again proven wrong.

and once again, right now, I am reminded of how fortunate I am to be Scottish. At least I can say Cameron is not *my* leader. For all his many flaws, Salmond is at least aware of the people on the streets of this country.
weekeef
Sep. 22nd, 2011 08:26 am (UTC)
This is the most thoughtful and thought-provoking thing I have read on the internet for a while. Thank you for it. I will also link if it's OK with you.
( 6 comments — Leave a comment )

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