I’ve recently been reading a couple of books and watched a lot of video clips about the terrorist attacks that took place on 22. July 2011 in Norway. I was personally in Oslo at the time of the bombing and I heard the bang, although at the time I thought it was related to building construction. Naturally, the event received saturation level coverage in all the news media in the weeks that followed. The public displays of unity that bound the nation together held up several values. “More democracy, more tolerance, more openness”. I’ve decided to look back at the years since the attacks, to properly analyse whether or not Norway as a society really did pass the test and survive the trial.
It is unsurprising that comparisons with how the United States handled 9/11 have been numerous. Both the 9/11 attacks and the 22/7 attacks represent the most violent and destructive terrorist attacks to hit their respective country. Both instantly became national events with massive international interest and long-term consequences. Few would argue with the notion that the US has become a security state in the time after entering the age of terrorism. Surveillance, NSA, PRISM, Snowden, Wikileaks, drones, military grade weapons and equipment to local police forces, these are all elements we have grown used to in the new reality. While the US rapidly and decisively stepped up its game on security matters, Norway really didn’t.
Over six years on, the Norwegian police forces aren’t better prepared for a similar event. Sure, they’ve received better training and somewhat increased funding, but they are still lacking helicopter support. This might seem incredulous to foreign readers, but the Norwegian police lack helicopter transportation and attack capabilities. They’re relegated to request helicopter support from the army, which according to plan is supposed to be available in an hour’s time from reception of the request for assistance. The militarised nature of American police forces is a stark contrast to reality on this side of the Atlantic.
It was revealed during the work of the governmental investigative commission formed after the attacks, that security measures that would have rendered the car bomb impossible hadn’t been implemented for years, even though the decision had been made. As a low-crime society one can understand and forgive the Norwegian police forces for not being entirely at the ready in the face of such massive twin attacks. Unfortunately, much blame has been laid to rest on the shoulders of ordinary police officers, despite the fact that it should have been laid at the feet of politicians and higher ups in the police bureaucracy. Such is the nature of governmental structures.
While we can be sympathetic and understanding in regard to the lack of readiness and preparedness prior to the attacks, the lack of action and improvement afterwards is harder to justify. That the helicopter support situation hasn’t been alleviated six years on defies understanding, it goes way beyond predictable governmental incompetence. One of the books I’ve recently been through contains numerous in-depth interviews with members of Norway’s special elite anti-terrorism police unit. One story in particular makes my jaw drop. The year following the attacks, the police’s request for deployment of a helicopter with armed snipers in response to a credible terror threat against the opening ceremony of parliament was denied by a political appointee in a bureaucracy. After the commission’s findings, after the most devastating attack in the country following the German occupation, nothing had changed.
In terms of security I believe that Norway has failed just as much as the US has following the emergence of the age of terrorism. While the US has trampled over civil liberties in their pursuit of security, Norway has returned to the culturally ingrained naivete and inertia about the threat level in the world. Only the direction of the failure separates the two countries.
Back to the public call for openness, democracy and tolerance. I don’t think I’m going far out on a limb by claiming that these lofty goals remain unfulfilled. Unfortunately, tolerance rarely refers to acceptance for differing political views. Online newspapers have restricted access to comment sections, requiring the use of one’s full legal name and heavy censorship. An important safety valve in society remains closed. The same political parties as before are doing the same as they did prior to the devastation. Closed party structures remain insulated from outside challenges to the prevailing structures and hegemonies. New ideas and new people face an extreme uphill struggle if they desire meaningful to change to the nature of Norwegian politics.
The deep cultural biases rooted deeply in the national character are hard to break free from. Our collective response to the twin terror attacks makes this clear. I can finish off this post with a few points regarding the trial of the perpetrator. The cultural and political elites clapped themselves on their shoulders after the court delivered a verdict in line with what was politically expedient for the ruling elites. A guilty verdict with an acceptance of the psychiatric report deeming the terrorist “sane” lead credence to the belief that his political views has been declared wrong. It served as fuel and ammunition to the political left for going after the right, and those critical of immigration in particular.
As always, perspectives change with time. Just like the first post World War 2 books about the German occupation of Norway highlighted selfless heroism, and a people standing proud and defiant against the Nazi invaders, the truth emerged in the years following. Many were just going along to get along and many collaborated with the occupiers. In the same vein, a lot of questions have been raised about the correctness of the court’s verdict in this case. There were two conflicting psychiatric reports the court had to consider. The first deemed the perpetrator insane in a legal sense, while the second came to the opposite conclusion. If the first report had carried the most weight in the judge’s decision, the terrorist’s actions couldn’t have been used politically to attack the political opponents of the left.
Personally, at the time of the conclusion of the trial, I though along with most Norwegians that the verdict was correct. I certainly had no objections to the law’s strongest punishment being handed out for the dastardly deeds committed. But the more research I do now with the benefit of hindsight, it emerges that the correctness of the psychiatric report deeming the terrorist sane isn’t as clear as we were led to believe at the time of the verdict. A final observation is that one thing is to look at how society handles a traumatic terrorist event at the time, another is to look at the response in the time after. Both represent clear failures by the Norwegian government.