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Norway stands together one year on

A year after the massacre, the country appears to have come through a terrible ordeal without losing its moral compass.
Last modified: 22 Jul 2012 20:54
[Image by Reuters]

Crossing to the island of Utoeya on a sunny evening, I breathed in the fresh champagne air.

We were speeding over the calm, dark blue waters of the fjord. We docked our small boat, and walked past old wooden buildings set in green fields, and down narrow paths through the forests, lined with brambles bursting with ripe red raspberries. Flowers were blooming, and a wagtail bird flitted happily along the path before us.

Is this really where it all happened? In these glades, Anders Breivik gunned down weeping children. And from this island beach, he calmly shot those who were frantically trying to swim away.

So one year on, how has Norway changed?

At one level, the country will never be the same. Breivik's attacks were, after all, the most traumatic thing to have happened to this small, prosperous and peaceful country since the Second World War.

"The 22nd of July" is now part of the nation's history and consciousness, a cultural reference point from which people talk, and think about, in terms of before and after.

Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg is widely seen to have handled the immediate aftermath and subsequent months with dignity and moral leadership. Most Norwegians accept his argument that Breivik's atrocities, motivated by a hatred of multi-cultural integration in general and the spread of Islam in particular, amounted to an attack on the country's tradition of tolerance and democracy.

Stoltenberg has consistently argued that the best response to this attack was a greater commitment to tolerance and the rule of law. For example, during his trial, Breivik has been treated with the same rights and privileges as any other suspect.

Stronger society

The prime minister told me that Norwegian society is stronger than it was a year ago. He said the country "is more democratic, more inclusive, more open and more tolerant". As evidence, he points to an increase in membership of political parties and youth organisations, and thousands of new volunteers offering to do charity work.

Certainly, Norway seems very confident in its values, but the prime minister does have his critics. A Norwegian friend said there was a danger confidence could become complacency.

"There's been a great emphasis on love and tolerance, which was initially a good thing, but now we need to answer some hard questions," said my friend. For example, why were the police apparently so ill-prepared last year, and have they increased their capabilities?

While some Norwegians told me the police had done heroic work during the attacks, others felt they had been exposed as risk-adverse, or even incompetent. The prime minister is reluctant to address these criticisms, preferring to wait for the report of an independent inquiry which is due in a few weeks time.

At a more fundamental level, Norway still faces the challenges of a fairly rapid transition from an extremely homogenous society to a much more diverse one.

Of course, Norwegians have emphatically rejected Breivik's hateful ideas and methods, but this dose not mean it's all plain sailing and harmony. For example, this summer there has been a vigorous and sometimes bitter debate about the rights of travelling Roma in Norway.

Nonetheless, there is a feeling here that the country has come through a terrible ordeal without losing its moral compass.

"We learnt something here," a Norwegian journalist said to me. "It's not a matter of Islam, or Judaism, or people of whatever colour or faith attacking our democracy, instead it's extremists attacking our democracy, and we need to stand together to protect it."