Saturday, August 25, 2012
Breivik verdict and the after-effects of terrorism
Normally, Norway only catches the international public eye for a brief moment twice a year: when the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize is announced in October, and in December, for the actual award ceremony for the world's most well-known prize that takes place in Oslo's City Hall.
But on July 22, 2011, Anders Behring Breivik saw to it that his home country of Norway would grab the limelight repeatedly throughout the rest of the year and the year to follow - not because of peace, but due to violence.
The 33-year-old, who trained himself to become a terrorist, first set off a car bomb near Oslo's government buildungs, killing eight people. He then traveled to the island of Utoeya, where he gunned down 69 people, mostly teenagers, who had gathered at their traditional Labour Party youth camp.
An entire nation was in shock. Shootings are extremely rare in Norway. A terrorist act of this dimension had never taken place - and no one, at home or abroad, would have ever fathomed that it could occur in the country.
Breivik deemed "sane"
Today, Anders Behring Breivik was sentenced to a 21-year prison term - Norway's maximum punishment. He may not, however, be set free should he be considered a threat to society once his jail term expires. His incarceration could then be extended for five years at a time.
As he had hoped himself, he was deemed sane, or fully accountable. Expert witnesses were in disagreement whether someone capable of such horrific attacks could be considered sane.
The topic was also widely discussed among the Norwegian population. Hanne Skartveit, a commentator at the newspaper Verdens Gang, said the verdict was "good and right" - expressing the sentiment of many. Relief reigned among Norwegians, not least because Breivik had announced he would appeal if he were held for insane. That would have likely meant more months of trial. "Anders Behring Breivik knew what he was doing, and he knew it was crazy," Skartveit said.
"I'm relieved," said Tore Sinding Bekkedal, who survived Utoeya, about the verdict. Many other Norwegians seem to agree with her. "Relieved" was the word the majority of readers of the Internet portal of Norway's biggest newspaper, the Aftenposten, used to describe their feeling upon hearing the verdict. "The attacks will mark our generation," said Lars Ellingsgard Oeverli. The photographer, who is in his early 20s, has traveled with two other young colleagues across Norway in the past few months, taking portraits of young people in his age group - and that of most of the Utoeya victims. Oeverli believes that July 22, 2011 is as life-changing for young adults his age as Germany's occupation of Norway was for their grandparents during World War II.
From the cradle of the middle-class
Right after the bomb explosion on that fateful Friday afternoon just over a year ago, many people were thinking it may have been an attack by Islamic terrorists. Instead, it turned out to be a terrorist act by an anti-Muslim, right-wing extremist.
The murderer came from mainstream society: he grew up in a so-called good, middle-class Norwegian family, had not attracted attention before, was articulate, and had enjoyed a brief career in the conservative to right-wing populist, but established Progress Party (FrP). All this served to cement the shock in Norway in the beginning. After all, even though a terrorist attack by Islamic militants had always seemed unlikely, but was conceivable nonetheless, no one had reckoned with this kind of attack from a local right-wing extremist. It became evident that people in Norway were not aware of this kind of danger.
Norwegians reacted in a very distinct way. While an attack by Islamic terrorists presumably wouldn't have led to a collective response, in this case, it was completely the opposite. Thousands took to the streets in demonstrations and mourning ceremonies. Immigrants, as well as those from families who have lived in Norway for genereations, politicians in Parliament from across the spectrum - everyone wanted to take a collective stand and show they would not accept this aspect of Norwegian society. "Our response is: more democracy, more openness and a greater sense of humanity - but never naïveté," said Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg at the time.
An investigative report released shortly before the Breivik verdict showed that it was not only naïve to believe that someone in Norway could not be capable of such an abstrusely motivated, horrific act, it was also wrong to assume that all the institutions would function perfectly. Some people were sloppy in their work. The secret service had already had Breivik on their radar once before and could have possibly taken action. The police made a long series of mistakes on the day of the attacks, could have perhaps prevented the shooting rampage on the young people, or at least stopped it sooner.
But the now-concluded trial has offered Norwegians hope. Hope, because it took into consideration the dignity of the victims as well the human rights of the perpetrator, and showed that it is possible to systematically process such an act - so that it not weigh down on the country forever.