I came to Norway for the same reason most other Australians find their way here. A young, educated, bi-lingual Norwegian girl captured my affection in the last year of my Australian studies and before I knew it I had been living in Norway three years. Forget Oil, Natural Gas, Wood, Fish or the Cheese slicer, Norway’s most important export is its young people. This small nation of just under five million has probably the most generous education system in the known universe. In university´s over the whole globe you will find small communities of Norwegians studying all sorts of topics and living in conditions that far exceeds those of locals thanks to the oil rich welfare kingdom that is Norway and its ever-strong Kroner. From my small little high school in Blackwood South Australia I can name at least six or seven people that are now living in Norway having been poached via the same stroke of socially engineered genius. Young, charming and patriotic students unaware of their higher mission carefully sort through the higher quality candidates for easily assimilated and talented foreigners to attract back home to support the economic demands of the robust Norwegian economy.
Although Norwegians travel abroad and socialize well in the larger world, on their home turf they are notoriously difficult to become close to. Norway is a country made of many small communities where the social bonds that underlie friendship are based heavily on a shared patriotism for their town of origin and although eternally hospitable, Norwegians display that all too often forgotten side of strongly knowing who you are, which is of course knowing who you are not. Even in the capital city of Oslo most people you meet do not originate from Oslo but are from one of the plentiful small communities evenly dispersed over this long elongated coastal nation. Population growth in recent years has almost entirely consisted of immigration and this is a much newer phenomenon in Norway than it is in many other western countries. One gets the feeling that this is challenging the identity of this largely homogeneous and very content society.
About two weeks before the Oslo bombings I was walking into “Grønland” which happens to be one of my favorite areas of Oslo to do my food shopping from the local markets. This is a predominantly immigrant neighborhood and the standard joke shared by locals of any origin around Oslo is that the new capital of Somalia is in fact now “Grenland”. In sharp contrast to the incredible prices of general food items from the shops visited by ethnic Norwegians you can score four dozen eggs for about fifty kroners, freshly made nan and pita bread, curry puffs and all sorts of other items on the cheap. Hashish is pushed on the street constantly and to help articulate the truly gritty and grimy vibe of this cultural melting pot, only last month I was pick pocketed. This young street surgeon didn’t have to use a gun or a knife to get what he wanted but performed keyhole robbery in such brilliant fashion I was unaware of it until the next day. Such craftsmanship so sharply directed at violating the very concept of individual property rights for purposes of wealth redistribution brings a smile to my face. Taxation is no subtler.
Despite my love for all things multicultural I detected a small disturbance in my inner pole this day. I am very conscious of my own thoughts and feelings as a guide to what the larger zeitgeist is thinking. Assuming I am well informed, the fact that I actually noticed that I was the only Caucasian in the visible area unsettled me and was a warning sign. Of course it is not unusual in societies with influxes of immigrants to have mono ethnic neighborhoods, but on this particular occasion I felt that the isolated area in which I had associated with immigration had swelled and spilled over into the area in which I had associated with ethnic Norwegians. A strong confidence in their position outside the Grenland area I hadn’t detected before was a signal to me that the wider social mood had potential to trend to extremities, either on the immigrant or ethnic Norwegian side. I base this not on any opinion of any ethnic group foreign or local but a simple principal that ethnic divides most of the time lead to ethnic violence. Of course the circumstances of this is a purely personal and somewhat metaphysical observation made in hindsight and only serves to give the reader a small insight into my particular view, quirky as it may be.
I live in the old Oslo Post office building that has been recently restored and turned into a apartment complex, complete with a high end gym, offices of fashion labels such as Tommy Hillfinger and specialty chocolate shops. Sounds very up market until you step onto the street to see strip joints, heroin addicts and prostitutes in every direction. This area although containing fashion boutiques and some of Oslo´s most beautiful historical architecture is the selected zone in which the Norwegian police have chosen to isolate these less appealing social elements. This is rumored to last another few years until new infrastructure surrounding the ‘second best looking opera house in the world’ is complete, and at which stage they will be moved once again. Oslo is built up around the top of a huge fjord that runs from the North Sea up the south east of the country. My apartment block is on the fjord side of the main road that splits the center of Oslo. This road is named Karl Johan of which the parliament building, the national theatre and the central train station are located. On the other side of this road to the north about equal distance to my place (approx. 200 meters) is parliamentary square in which the bomb was detonated.
Among other organs of the Norwegian state located in this exact area is a large gymnasium, which happens to be the gym I am currently training at. World gym, which is one of the coolest and most central gymnasiums in Oslo had just employed me as a personal trainer. Most western society´s these days are very sexualized but in Norway being fit, healthy and attractive is so important it takes on a new meaning. The socialist model that Norway ideals better than any other western nation greatly reduces the more easily quantifiable aspects of social stratification such as personal wealth, yet the other often forgotten aspects of social status that can not be easily egalitarianized such as appearance and sexuality are as socially vertical as any nation. One of the basic pre-requisite to being and or appearing successful in this city is to have a cool personal trainer in which you can demand make you healthy, attractive, listen to your problems and on occasions help you work on your interpersonal skills by practicing to be a good listener. In one of the worlds most opulent societies in which hiding of ones emotions is a virtue an extroverted Australian with some boxing pads can act as an effective physical and emotional punching bag for those whom feel they need it.
The front door of World´s Gym faces perpendicular to a street named Akersgata. Turn right and you are walking towards Karl Johan, turn left and you very fast find yourself in the middle of parliamentary square and the site of the Oslo bombing. It was a reasonably sunny day and people where on the street in the hundreds. In a country such as Norway in which the winter Olympics is considered the “only” Olympics, naturally generated photons are a precious commodity to be exploited. In Short, a Norwegian will make every effort to walk along the path of most sun as opposed to the path of most shade in which the Australian may take. After a hard training session, exhausted, blank, satisfied and hungry are the words that come to mind when trying to convey how I was feeling leaving the gymnasium on that July day. Walking out the door, I turned right towards Karl Johan and pulled my iPhone out my pocket to listen to music. I was no more than twenty-five meters down the road when the loudest, deepest noise I had ever heard struck me.
The buildings around me simply moved and warped, my eyesight went strange and next thing I know my hands where helping me balance myself by touching the ground on either side. Space got a little warped and time decided to stop for a few seconds. As I turned around I saw the debris flying everywhere and a massive brown cloud of smoke fill the entire area, windows were smashed and people around me were totally blank faced and in shock. I have heard many people say that they initially thought that this was thunder or some other industrial accident however in my mind I didn’t doubt what this was for a second. The look on the faces of all the people around me was what I remember most vividly of this moment. To see such a large collective of individuals experience such temporary dissociative stupor and disorientation followed by more or less immediate panic was horrific.
Having experienced the initial blast so close, my next reaction was to find somewhere indoors to hide. Being ever interested in political affairs I had spent much time reading about similar attacks and was familiar with the tactics used in trying to force people out on to the streets where a second and more deadly attack can commonly occur such as what happened in Bali a few years earlier. I ran across the street in the opposite direction to the explosion and went into a small Chinese restaurant to hide. Masses of people had started to gather up the road outside parliament house, which is exactly what I did not want to do. This is an extremely unique situation and everybody reacts differently of course so I can excuse myself for any behavior that I may have exhibited and please see the light side of life as I explain my next actions. As I stood inside the Chinese restaurant and explained to people that I thought staying inside was a better idea than joining the large crowd gathering up the road in another politically important area, I began to fiercely and without permission eat their prawn crackers off their table. They looked at me with a strong look of confusion at which point I then decided that I would make a run for it across Karl Johan and to the safety of the Post Office building.
As I ran through the massive crowd that had gathered in the center of Karl Johan I truly feared that I may become a victim of a second blast yet fate would have it that I would not be a casualty of terrorism this sunny day and I knew that once I had got my self away from any political or human targets I was safe. The next thing I did was call my mother, I knew that if she was to see what had just happened on the news without having heard from me she would be hysterical with fear. She heard my voice, heard what happened and was convinced that I was ok and safe yet the story never the less activated her fear receptors and she started crying uncontrollably for a few seconds until I was able to truly prove I was somewhere safe and out of danger. After this I updated my Facebook status to alert whatever friends or family were interested or concerned that I was “fine…. and safe”.
I soon arrived at the Post office building and made my way down the stairs to the underground gymnasium, which was most definitely a secure position to ride out the coming hours safely. This was at least two or three hundred meters away from the blast zone yet windows in this region of the city had also been blown out and people inside the gym had been quite badly shaken up. At this stage, us that work in this gym scanned the Internet for information about what had just happened. Massive bandwidth in the area was being dedicated to the same purpose so all the local news websites were extremely difficult to access. All that was available was the standard line that a “massive blast had rocked central Oslo”. My assumption was the same as the vast majority of other people in that we all believed that an Islamic based terrorist group perpetrated the blast. There had been signals in the past that there were Islamic extremists operating in Oslo. The face of terrorism that had been imposed on me from ten years of invasive media has been Islamic and I don’t think the idea that an ethnic Norwegian was responsible for this even entered my mind.
The fact that the underground gymnasium was such a good place to be at was an idea shared by others, such as two people that worked for a local political journal that had offices up the road. They were using the Internet, phones and radio interception of police communications to gain information about what was happening outside. Their words to me were that police communications had suggested that more explosives had been planted around the city and that the whole central area of Oslo would be evacuated. As it turned out the second half of this would be correct. As the hours passed I would move from the basement where the gymnasium was located up to my apartment on the 6th floor and back countless times checking my internet and then conversing with friends that had gathered in the gym to share information and experiences. None of the horror that occurred at the island of Utøya had even been reported on this day and all our focus was on what had happened on the streets outside.
As the night grew closer it became clear that central Oslo was to be completely locked down by a combination of police and military forces. My apartment building for whatever reason was lined on the outside with police tape as though it was part of the crime scene itself. My building was located on the borderline in which the Norwegian Military had put a curfew in place and they guarded and locked down the total perimeter of the city by this. My friend that had his apartment located inside this perimeter was told that had he gone home he would not then be able to leave for an undisclosed period of time so he choose to spend the evening at my place. In Norway, Alcohol is very tightly regulated by the state and normal supermarkets are only allowed to sell beer until six o’clock. All other alcoholic beverages can only be purchased at the state owned and unapologetically named “Wine Monopoly”. In another vote of support for the immigrant community in Norway, certain small immigrant owned corner stores take it upon themselves to support the more libertarian minded among us and occasionally sell beer past the legal times imposed by the nanny state. Carlsberg, Indian food and watching the wheels go round and round characterized this night as the horror of what had happened became more transparent. Every so often the silence of the outside world would be disturbed by the sudden burst of noise from the sirens of heavily armed Mercedes military vehicles in pursuit of what in hindsight must have been a false alarm.
The next day I would awake to investigate what was although terrible in every respect a significant event in my life. Statistically they say that there is so many ways that you are more likely to die than in a terrorist attack, yet I came as close as anyone I had so far met to becoming a victim of such a rare event. Anders Breivik had been captured and the full seriousness of what had happened at Utøya had been realized. As I walked outside my building, the streets were full of quiet souls walking into the center to get a closer view of the location in which the bomb had been detonated. The gymnasium and area in which I was in had been firmly isolated from the rest of the city as part of the official crime scene and this encapsulated basically the entire political district of about ten city blocks. In what ironically reminded me of the Islamic ritual of the Hajj when hundreds of thousands of Muslims pilgrimage to Mecca to walk counter clock-wise around the Kaaba, people slowly and quietly walked in this same direction uniformly around the bomb site as they came to digest what had happened in their normally quiet and safe city. The only noise to be heard was the sharp clicking of a camera flash or a person spontaneously breaking down in tears.
On the north side of Karl Johan is located the Oslo Cathedral. Like everything in Norway, it is humble yet quietly proud in statue. On the Sunday night after the bombing, inside the Oslo Cathedral I sat for two hours and watched every thread that forms the Norwegian social fabric, battle its soul for an understanding of what had just happened. In Norway, there is no real separation between church and state, either politically or culturally. Although Norwegians maintain one of the lowest regular attendances of church in the world just about all Norwegians are registered members and are baptized, confirmed and married in its presence, which is always partnered with the ever present symbol of the state, the flag. If it is true that everybody has a “God-shaped hole” in their heart”, Norwegians have learnt to fill this much less with faith in god and more so with a deep attachment in their belief in the inherent goodness of their culture and an organic attachment to their land and political institutions. That night I saw emotional pain and grief in a magnitude and density that few in the fortunate world are to witness, yet I am also privileged as I suspect I witnessed the epicenter of that collective yet unconscious decision to respond in the way they did which without doubt is rooted in Norwegians slight rejection of all things of unnecessary grandeur and almost indigenous style attachment to their culture and way of life.
Political violence is a near constant in human affairs and one should be aware that to engage in the game of politics is to make enemies of which some may have the tendency towards violence. Although abominable within the context of an open and un-despotic society such as Norway I suspect there is at the very least an unconscious acceptance mankind still legitimizes the use of violence for political ends. However, at the most fundamental level of our understanding, the mass slaughter of children according to any belief system is akin to anti-humanity. Justice handed out by the state to individuals that commit crimes such as these needs to reflect this fact and impose the maximum penalty of which the state in question legislates. In the case of Norway the maximum penalty is 21 years with the potential for 30 years in cases of crimes against humanity. There are further provisions that in theory could enable Anders Behring Breivik to serve unlimited extensions of five years periods if he is deemed to be dangerous to society. Western societies hard fought yet eternally fragile reluctance to empower the state to have access to ultimate control over its citizens of which capital punishment is a key prerequisite, is something that Norwegian culture obviously recognizes and holds dear. There is a very well justified feeling I am sure in many of our hearts that abhors the fact that while many people of this earth are born into intractable circumstances that Anders Behring Breivik, not only has the potential to be a free man but will most certainly be afforded many of the comforts whilst in prison that a large percentage of humanity is yet to even know to wish for.