Has Norway reclaimed Utoya?

Breivik’s murderous intent awakens Norwegians and brings Norway together.

Anders Breivik killed 77 people in a bomb and gun attack in Norway in 2011 [AP]

At approximately 5:20pm on Friday, July 22, 2011, after having attacked Oslo’s main government buildings with a fertiliser bomb, Anders Behring Breivik arrived on the lake island of Utoya dressed as a policeman. Armed with a Glock pistol and a Ruger rifle, Breivik walked around the island, calmly killing members of the Youth League (AUF) of the ruling Labour Party, who were there on summer camp.

Bodies piled up as fleeing young people were trapped on the shores of the cold lake. The entry wound of one of the victims was in the palate, indicating that the girl was screaming or begging for her life when Breivik pulled the trigger at close range, execution-style.

Breivik killed 69 people on the island, while a further eight were killed in the explosion, making a ghastly tally of 77 victims in a country where the annual homicide rate lies around 30. The average age of the Utoya dead was 19. The act of one man shook a nation.

Almost three years later, on July 11, Eskil Pedersen, the AUF-leader who narrowly escaped the massacre, and 500 other members of the Youth League stepped ashore on Utoya again. Pedersen made an emotional speech in honour of the victims, and seemed to embody the slogan he coined himself three years ago: “We will reclaim Utoya.”

In a narrow sense, Pedersen meant that the AUF summer camp would return to the island – which has yet to occur; the AUF stayed only a few hours on the island this year. In a wider sense, the slogan came to mean that the country would return to normalcy. Three years on, what lessons have been learned? Has Norway reclaimed Utoya?

Did Breivik ‘win’?

The trial of Breivik shed light on the conspiratorial online underworld from which he emerged as a self-proclaimed “Justiciar Knight”. In Breivik’s 1,500 page manifesto he blamed the Labour party and European elites for colluding with Arab states in order to swamp Europe with Muslim immigrants.

The “Eurabia” conspiracy theory is associated with the so-called counter-jihadi movement, and Breivik had apparently been radicalised in sect-like corners of the web. He wanted to be seen as a political militant, and ostensibly his aims were to foment conflict and to hurt the Labour Party.

Witness – Bravehearts

Many pundits supported the view of Breivik’s defence lawyer Geir Lippestad, himself a Labour Party member, who claimed that online extremism alone radicalised his client. Yet questions lingered. If seemingly normal people could go online and emerge a few years later as killing machines, should there be more police surveillance and stricter legislation on hate speech?

In the parliamentary elections of September 2013, the Labour Party was voted out of office and replaced with a conservative coalition that includes the Progress Party, a populist party which once counted Breivik as a member. Commentators asked whether Norway had learnt anything from 22 July: Did Breivik “win”, as a Swedish journalist suggested?

The conservative government has reduced the number of Syrian refugees transferred to Norway via the UNHCR, and facilitated local bans of begging (beggars are mostly foreigners). This summer, Labour Party leaders have asked whether Norway has dealt properly with the ideology of Breivik, echoes of which were occasionally repeated by senior members of the Progressive Party in the years preceeding the massacre.

The Progress Party’s entry into government is hardly a right-wing revolution, however, but rather the result of the party’s gradual drift towards the political centre. Its views on integration and immigration are no longer very different from the Labour party; some of the Progress Party’s leaders and a fair number of their voters have immigrant backgrounds.

This fact reflects two basic truths about Norwegian society: The pull of the political centre is strong and the process of integration in Norway has by and large been a success story. Statistics show relatively high social mobility for most immigrant populations and steady growth of acceptance of the new multicultural reality by the majority population over the last 15 years. The rise of second and third generations of immigrants and increased contact between the majority and the minority populations have resulted in less, not more friction – a process lubricated by Norway’s oil-driven economic boom.

Breivik’s stated aim was to spread conflict, but his acts brought Norwegians together. After the massacre, millions of people took part in demonstrations against xenophobia, violence and racism on the streets and online. The media take on Islam has become less polarised: On TV Norwegian Muslims debate the role of religion and the meaning of democracy. The notion that Muslims are all the same (like Tolkien’s orcs as the blogger Fjordman, Breivik’s guru, wrote) is increasingly hard to sustain.  

The faces of the 77 dead, many of whom had immigrant backgrounds, were displayed on the front pages for weeks and months after the massacre, powerful images of a new generation of national martyrs. In hindsight it seems that July 22, 2011 marked a watershed: The national “we” came to include the half million or so Norwegians of foreign backgrounds. Norway in 2014 may be sickeningly wealthy, and skeptical about immigration, but it’s not a seething nest of Breivikings.  

Although Breivik dressed his knight in state-of-the-art online paranoia, his malign narcissism had deeper sources. Breivik’s idiosyncratic psychopathology appeared to have roots in child abuse, according to a confidential report of psychiatrists who observed Breivik and his family in the early 1980s. Breivik was raised by a single mother with a serious depression and a borderline personality disorder. She had a particularly “pathological” relationship to her son, according to the report, at the same time “symbiotic” and aggressive.  

The psychiatrists strongly recommended that he should be taken from his mother. In 1983, Breivik’s father asked for custody, but both the court and the child welfare unit disregarded the experts and Breivik stayed with his mother. If he had been given care by a normal family, would he still have gone to Utoya? The question is of course unanswerable, but the lesson of Breivik’s case is that radicalisation may have deep roots. Prevention of terror starts in the home.

Even strong societies can produce radical outsiders. Breivik was caught by the system when he was a small child, but the system let him go. Spurred by grandiosity and protected by paranoia, lack of empathy and alexithymia, the inability to express emotions, Breivik refined feelings of shame and revenge fantasies until they erupted with enormous force. Is Norway better equipped today to handle not only failures of the police, but of some families? In this regard, I think, Norway has still not reclaimed Utoya.

Aage Borchgrevink is a  journalist and writer of fiction and non-fiction. His controversial, critically acclaimed and award-winning 2012 book, A Norwegian Tragedy: Anders Behring Breivik and the Massacre on Utoya was published in English by Polity Press in 2013.

Follow him on Twitter: @aageb