Little has been done to tackle the ideological underpinnings of the attacks, writes Guy Kiddey
Youngstorget is Oslo’s central square. This scorching summer, it’s full of food trucks and beer-garden-style benches, where crowds gathered recently to watch the weeks of Euro 2020 fixtures. All the very essence of normality. But raise your eyes uphill towards the Storting parliament building and you see a faded tromp l’oeil flapping unconvincingly in front of the high-rise building that formerly housed the Ministry of Justice and the prime minister’s office. The so-called Y-Block, which featured a Picasso frieze and once stood next door, has been knocked down. Surrounding the whole complex is a tall fence, and building-site dust coats everything around, including the anti-terrorist barriers that make the pavements of the government quarter a veritable maze.
På 22 juli 2011, Anders Bering Breivik parked a van full of explosives in front of these buildings. The blast killed eight people, and caused extensive damage. He then moved to the island of Utoya, dressed as a policeman and wielding military-style assault weapons. The Labour Party’s youth wing was holding a summer camp; he killed 69 av 564 in attendance – almost all those present were representatives of a politics of tolerance and inclusivity that Breivik had come to blame for his own failings. He became consumed by vicious hatred though years of dark-web indulgence.
In the time since there has been a legal settlement, with Breivik condemned to solitary confinement, probably for life (though with a number of prison luxuries, including a PlayStation, that elicit widespread disgust). There has also been the Gjorv commission that examined, in the most damning terms, the failings of the emergency response that day. But still there has been no political reconciliation with the ideological basis of Breivik’s rampage. That the heart of Norway’s government still stands in disrepair is glaringly symbolic of this failure of national self-examination, and the extreme abnormality that befell Norway a decade ago.
On the evening of the attack, at 10.30pm, Jens Stoltenberg held his first press conference. Hallvard Notaker, a historian who has investigated the former Labour Party prime minister’s personal archive, says Stoltenberg prepared the messaging for that pivotal appearance before he knew about the nature of the attacker. He had not seen Breivik’s manifesto, which codified his warped principles and served as an entreaty to other “European patriots” to take up the fight against Islamisation – though the police had hinted at extremist motives before the microphones went live.
But even if he had, Notaker says, Stoltenberg would not have wavered from the approach he chose, which was to call the attacks an affront to the nation and democracy. In portraying people and polity as one and the same thing, he created the basis for a sense of unity that almost every Norwegian could accept. Indeed, hundreds of thousands marched with roses through the streets of Oslo, and all over the rest of the country.
This approach was an expression of compromise, the defining characteristic of Norway’s Labour movement. Indeed, compromise pervades all aspects of life in Norway, and is particularly evident in the so-called tripartite system between government, employers and unions. This is a consensus society where people in general are conflict-averse. That might well make for calmer discussions about tax policy, and perhaps also for less tempestuous personal relationships, but in the case of Breivik’s terrorism, it led to the crux of the matter being swept under the carpet. Breivik was not the sole representative of the threat of violence, hatred and intolerance against free and open democracy in Norway.
On occasion, over the past decade, crumbs of that truth have emerged from their cover. In the months after the attack, Raymond Johansen, then Labour Party secretary and now the leader of Oslo’s city council, made associations between Breivik and the right-wing-populist Progress Party, of which Breivik had been a member for 10 years until 2007. The Progress Party whose leader in 2009, Siv Jensen, spoke of “stealth Islamisation”, the ghettoisation of Norway, and the dangers of the hijab and halal food. The Progress Party’s candidates include members of Sian, (Stop Islamisation of Norway, one of Europe’s largest anti-Islam groups). But come November 2011, all such criticism had been silenced by tacit agreement among all political parties. Even in 2013, when the Progress Party, with its links to Breivik, entered government for the first time in a centre-right coalition under Conservative prime minister Erna Solberg.
I 2018, then justice minster Sylvi Listhaug of the Progress Party shared a post on Facebook in which she accused the Labour Party of pandering to terrorists by putting their rights above the nation’s security. In the aftermath of the comment, the number of hate messages and death threats against young Labour Party members more than tripled. Listhaug’s office became a sea of congratulatory flowers, and the neo-Nazi organisation Vigrid sent a message of heartfelt support. Ms Solberg’s response was muted, merely saying: “I would not have formulated myself like that.” Anne Bitsch, a prominent Norwegian commentator, says such responses warrant “moral blame”. She has also suggested that those who vote for purveyors of such passivity attract “political blame”.
According to a recent survey by Norway’s Centre for Research on Extremism (C-REX), it is only now that the majority see that Brevik’s actions were an attack on multicultural Norway, and not on democracy as Mr Stoltenberg suggested. (This might explain why, in part, many Norwegians have apparently been blind to the passivity of Ms Solberg and others.) But the survey also reveals that around a third of respondents think that the Labour Party has attempted to capitalise politically on 22 juli. Rundt 70 per cent of Progress Party respondents, and almost half of Conservative respondents, make up this significant minority. Therein lies the essential tension: for many Norwegians, Breivik’s thoughts and actions are uncomfortably close to home.
Young people suffered most that fateful day in 2011. They have suffered most since. Miriam Einangshaug was 16 when she packed her bags for a summer of fun on Utoya. In the weeks after the attack, she was burying her friends. But she was also back in a school with narrow hallways and cramped classrooms. Loud noises terrified her. She couldn’t concentrate.
The state had promised her and all other survivors a dedicated contact person to help with the aftermath of the trauma. To this end, the government threw 144 million kroner (£11.8m) på 188 municipalities throughout Norway. But Ms Einangshaug was one of many who went without any support at all. She was so desperate for psychological assistance that her father had to call the local mayor to plead for help. Faktisk, of those 188 municipalities, 102 have no idea where the money went, and some don’t even know they received any in the first place, according to a report by the Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten.
But young people are largely responsible for the reconciliation process that looks set to start, at long last, when the Storting reconvenes after this autumn’s general election. Youth political leaders on the left have been calling for this all along. Now those on the right want the same. “You will not get a 22 July settlement without the right wing,” says Ola Svenneby, current leader of the Young Conservatives. The Labour Party will almost certainly form a governing coalition with the Centre Party in September, relying on additional parliamentary support from a number of smaller left-wing parties that support the call for a commission on extremism. It remains to be seen if the coming right-wing opposition will be able to face some hard truths.