28 July 2011

Innocent Norway

Part of a screen capture from english.aljazeera.net, last Saturday

"This tragedy marks the end of Norway's innocence"

These words are the title of a thoughtful article by Anthony Browne in the Telegraph. This theme of Norway's "loss of innocence" was all over the media in the hours and days following last Friday's tragic events in Oslo and Utøya. (Example one. Example two. Example three.) For several reasons, this line makes me uneasy.

First of all, Norway is not an isolated land of noble primitives. For over a century, Norway has had one of the world's largest privately-owned merchant navies (presently ranking number 6). The German conquest of Norway in World War II led to armed resistance and Nazi reprisals. The treasonous Quisling was a Norwegian, and the Nobel-prize-winning novelist and national treasure Knut Hamsun refused, even at war's end, to renounce his admiration for Adolf Hitler. After the war, Norway joined NATO. Norwegian forces have fought in Korea, Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. Norwegian politicians know how to play hardball with each other, as in the recent case of the nasty fight over choosing a new fighter plane for the air force.

Murders are rare, but not nonexistent. Ditto for domestic violence, public alcoholism, suicide, hate crimes and (as I've seen myself) racist and neo-Nazi vandalism. There is no aristocracy in Norway, and many Norwegians share an aversion to immodest displays of wealth, but class tensions do exist.

 I'm presenting this very miscellaneous bag of behaviors simply to say that Norwegians are neither ethereal angels nor completely unacquainted with violence.

Maybe some refer to Norway's "innocence" as a sly commentary on the country's famed prudence and idealism. Surely these values amount to national naivete, detached from the realities of this world. But what if this so-called "innocence" is not innocent at all, but rather a deliberately chosen and logically defensible way of life? Most Norwegian political parties, left and right, share a basic assumption that the national economy can and must balance private enterprise and social justice. Norwegian forces seem ready to join U.N. peacekeeping missions at the drop of a hat. Alfred Nobel assigned Norway the privilege of awarding his Peace Prize. As a source of public and private development aid, Norway is often the world's per capita champion donor. Even as a petro-power, Norway displays exemplary behavior--depositing huge amounts of oil and gas earnings into a sovereign welfare fund advised by a Sunday school teacher. As for kings and politicians, their roles may reflect the functional chieftains of Viking days--not expecting exaltation and well-guarded Olympian isolation, but simply expecting to do their jobs just like everyone else.

These features are not proof of innocence or naivete; they reflect a long series of national bargains, worked out over years of debate and many election cycles. They reflect a pragmatic understanding that a good life for me is most easily achieved and maintained if a good life is within reasonable reach of all. Would such a pragmatic and functional national covenent survive a new regime of highly-armed separation of government offices and politicians from their people--or a defensive and reactionary attitude toward foreign ideas and people?

Some of the commentators citing Norway's innocence and its loss are themselves Norwegian--for example, this much-discussed column by crime novelist Jo Nesbø. But I can't help wonder whether others simply don't want to believe in Norway's achievements. Surely such national sanity and quality of life must come at some awful price, and--aha--now we see what it is! But in the aftermath of the July 22 tragedies, it's important for Norway to remember the long and deliberate history of its national consensus that freedom is better than fear.

To sum up: don't confuse the July 22 attacks as a question of some fatal Norwegian flaw to be labeled "innocence." That's a diversion; these attacks clearly revealed some real flaws to consider urgently. It's not as if Norway is too innocent to have police forces--why did it take them so long to respond to Breivik's attacks on the youth camp? There is nothing about Norway's national idealism that requires helicopters and boats to be unavailable when an emergency happens, or to avoid connecting the dots when a self-proclaimed extremist buys materials that can become explosives. The more we believe in nonviolence and trust, the more vigilant we have to be to confront evil on our own terms.

More Norway-related links: Meeting for Grief and Hope (this Saturday, Seattle, USA). The power of truth, love and nonviolence (Fellowship of Reconciliation), "Breivik and his enablers" (New York Times), "Some Terrorists Are Blonde" (Foreign Policy Association). And a moving song that became an anthem for those grieving July 22 and committing themselves to the nation's young people. (Thanks to Barbara Berntsen for the reference.) Click on "show more" to see the words.

Friday PS: "Norway's atrocity: the mental tunnel" (OpenDemocracy).

Pastor and evangelist to the whole planet: John Stott dies at age 90. New York Times. Christianity Today. John Stott Ministries.

Becky Ankeny in Elektrostal
Northwest Yearly Meeting's new general superintendent-elect (starting at the end of the year) is Rebecca Ankeny--here's a brief introduction. Becky's appointment was approved at the Yearly Meeting's business sessions yesterday. With great affection, we also recognized the wonderful service of our outgoing superintendent, Colin Saxton, who will be serving as the new general secretary of Friends United Meeting.

Two items from Russia Religion News: "A New Russian Bible" and "Russian Supreme Court tries to limit use of 'extremism' cases against believers."

Norway's Knut Reiersrud, "I Don't Feel No Ways Tired"


Anonymous said...

You hit the nail on the head again, Johan. I might add that I have been wondering what it is like for Norwegian soldiers bombing Libya and 'soldiering' in Afghanistan to hear our Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg repeat over and over again that only love is powerful enough to overcome violence and hatred. Will 7/22 lead Norway to implement changes to our foreign policy, too?

Anonymous said...

Norwegian police and a parliamentary commission are to review and adjust emergency preparedness in Norway. Good! I am sure there are improvements to be made. But how do we prepare for something our imagination cannot grasp? Until 9/11, no-one thought of a plane as a bomb. In Norway, there were three "failures of imagination" that led police to be insufficiently prepared:
1. kids as targets, not just "collateral damage";
2. an attack in a rural setting, as opposed to against a place where people are gathered;
3. the perpetrator causing a safety concern (bomb in Oslo), then donning a police uniform and using its promise of safety to get access to victims.
We can adjust to 1. and 3., but I doubt there is a remedy for 2.
In the end, I wonder whether the logic of evil comprehensible to loving people?
Assuming we could, would we want to live in a kind of society that has imagined every possible evil and put in place safety measures to counteract every one of them?

Jeremy Mott said...

Jeremy Mott said ....
There was a time, before World War I,
when Norway and Sweden were one big
kingdom. Even after they separated,
they deliberately followed almost
identical foreign policies: armed
neutrality, and certainly nothing to
provoke war or enemy attack. This
was not pacifism or even "innocence;"
as you say Johan, it was a deliberate, very practical choice.
Except for the accident that Germany decided to occupy Norway
during World War II, probably Norway would have continued its
neutral policy, much as Sweden did.
Sweden is now a bit behind
Norway. Sweden still has aristo-
crats, and until the Thirties it
had severe class divisions. It
now takes in far more asylum-
seekers than Norway. Sweden is
not a member of NATO or any other
military alliance (at least in
theory). So I am a bit surprised that these terrible
attacks happened in Norway, not in
Sweden. It seems to me that Norway
can increase "security" greatly,
in the usual ways (police, etc.),
without making itself a big prison.
I have not noticed any indication on the internet of what Norwegian Quakers think about all this. Norway Y.M. is small, with fewer than 200 members, but it is by far the oldest Quaker group in Scandinavia. It does considerable
peace work in Africa, using funds
from the Norwegian government.
What am I missing?
Peace, Jeremy Mott

Anonymous said...

Here's a link to the English language page of Norway YM. http://kveker.org/index_eng.htm

As for security in Norway, I'd ask that we await the findings from the internal police review and the Parliamentary Commission's review. Like you, I had many questions when I first heard that the killer had 90 uninterrupted minutes on the island, but as I've heard more about what the police did and didn't do, what their reasoning was, and my own knowledge of the area around Utoeya, I'm not sure that much could or should have been done differently. For instance, do you establish a second helicopter + crew for the sole purpose of having coverage when the first team is on vacation for 3 weeks in July? Could we justify that? Also, the one police helicopter in Oslo is for surveillance and can't transport police officers. The military provides transport helicopters for the Oslo police (half an hour flight from Rygge to Utoeya); Oslo police could drive to Utoeya in 30 minutes and could get many more officers there. Please remember that Utoeya is in the middle of nowhere, 30 miles from downtown Oslo. Not saying the police were without blame - here's one clear mistake: the dispatchers apparently didn't believe the first callers when they reported shooting on Utoeya. Yes, mistakes were undoubtedly made, and systems improvements will undoubtedly be made. For instance, the Oslo police have been asking for a helicopter base in Grorud (northeast Oslo) for years, but Parliament hasn't approved the funding. Grubbegata, the street where the car bomb was parked, was scheduled to have been closed to regular traffic this fall - I'm sure these kinds of projects will be given higher priority now.
But blaming, and blaming before careful review of the facts are in, doesn't serve anyone. The police were asked some very hard questions last week - the next day, first responders were showered with roses by regular people. We have to recognize that the police are humans, they lost loved ones, they have been traumatized by what they have seen. They need to be met with compassion as much as anyone else in Norway these days. And then let's improve emergence preparedness as much as we can.
(member of Oslo MM, living in Seattle)

Jeremy Mott, said...

Susanne, Thank you for the wealth of

I think that Friends in the U.S.A.
might want to know that one of those killed on Utoya was the step-brother of the phenomenally popular crown
princess. No wonder the king and queen were openly weeping during the
ceremony at the cathedral: a member of their extended family was among the dead. This fact
serves to underline the things
that you said, of course. No one
can easily predict what a crazy
terrorist will do.
Peace, Jeremy Mott
(member Ridgewood M.M.,
now living in Roanoke, Va.)

Music Reviews said...

What a tragedy, destroys the innocence of any nation.