Norway: the mourning after

After Friday’s massacre, Norwegians vowed to “hold one another near”, rather than seeking scapegoats

Throughout the cold and wet weekend that followed Anders Behring Breivik's murderous rampage, Norwegians gathered at the site of the bombing in Oslo and in the mainland town nearest to Utøya to pay their own tributes to the victims. On the beaches and on the streets, candles flickered in jars. In Oslo's grand old dom­kirke, the cathedral, their flames mixed with the light streaming through the windows, which were damaged in the blast.

On Monday, however, the perfume of sweet-smelling wax inside the domkirke was replaced with the scent of freshly cut roses. The previous day's mourning had given way to a national procession, with 150,000 marching not just for "democracy, unity and tolerance" but "to hold one another near".

The victims of Breivik's massacre include many who would have become left-wing politicians, given that the site of the shooting was a meeting of the Arbeidernes Ungdomsfylking, the youth wing of the ruling Arbeiderpartiet (Labour Party). The youngest is thought to be Johannes Buø, who was 14.

What Norwegians have struggled to come to terms with in the days since the attacks is this: how could a society that prides itself on being peace-loving and egalitarian have nourished a man such as Breivik? "Why did you do it?" read one of many angry letters in the sea of flowers outside the domkirke. "No one in Norway believed that something like this could ever happen," read another.

The profile of Breivik that has emerged in recent days is of a right-wing nationalist, intent on fusing violence with propaganda - the hammer and the sickle of the terrorist. Breivik is clearly a sociopath, but he also nourished his ideas in a broader, right-wing environment.

Norway, unlike some of its Scandinavian counterparts, usually has not been seen as a place of right-wing extremism. A recent poll showed that half of all Norwegians favour limiting immigration - 10 per cent of the country's 4.9 million people are immigrants - but Norway did not have Sweden's concerns over a right wing prepared to articulate its racist views with violence. These were so well recognised as to be standard plot fodder in the Scandinavian-noir novels of writers such as Stieg Larsson and Henning Mankell.

Before his books became bestsellers, Larsson was also known for his stand against Sweden's white-supremacist subculture and went as far as helping to found an anti-fascist magazine, Expo, in 1995 in response to a series of Nazi-related murders.

For his part, Mankell has written that he saw in Anders Behring Breivik "a ghastly return of the Übermensch mentality that was the mark of Hitler's Nazism, which occupied Norway during the Second World War".

It is true that modern Norway has not been completely free of fascist or neo-Nazi elements. In 1979 the neo-Nazi Petter Kristian Kyvik threw a bomb at marchers in the annual May Day procession in Oslo. In 2001, a 15-year-old mixed-race boy was knifed to death by three neo-Nazis, an event that inspired 40,000 people to take to the streets in public opposition to racism.

Since then, right-wing extremism has appeared to wane. Until recently, that is. A few months ago, a Norwegian police statement noted that the extreme right was on the rise again, feeding itself through new social media such as networking sites and internet forums. This was precisely where Breivik fed his fana­tical world-view; he made contacts on Facebook while marshalling selective evidence and half-baked theories in online forum threads to convince himself that what he was doing made sense. A Twitter account in his name carried the single message, adapted from the philosopher John Stuart Mill: "One person with a belief is equal to the force of 100,000 who have only interests."

His mission, as he said in his first appearance in court on 25 July, was to "save" Europe from itself: from the Muslims engaged in their "demographic warfare" and from the vermin­ous "cultural Marxist" politicians whose love for multiculturalism and rejection of a two-tier ­society was ceding the rights to the European heartland.

Net effect

Such pseudo-reasoning displays two extreme-right-wing traits: an often poisonous hatred of diversity and those whose tolerance supports it, and the lauding of a culture of violence. Rightist extremism in Norway thus never quite went away; it merely went online. At 32, Breivik is not only part of the first generation to have grown up in a once-homogeneous Scandinavia as it dealt with growing levels of immigration, but also a part of the first broadly internet-literate generation.

Breivik's was a classic case of internet radicalisation - a mirror-image of many of the jihadists he sees himself as opposed to, according to the Norwegian blogger Øyvind Strommen, who has followed closely the "counter-jihadist" community that inspired the massacre. Are there others out there, as Breivik claims? It is a question that too easily opens the gates to the security-mongers.

Breivik's story is self-evidently more complex than the question of whether or not he acted alone. It turns on how a man who "had everything", as his former school friend Peter Svaar put it, and who was "unfortunately not crazy", could carry out such mass murders in the belief that they were for a deserving poli­tical cause. This was a boy who grew up in an affluent part of Oslo and even took his mother out for a meal just before the attack to make up for the lack of attention he had paid her while planning it.

It is more complex, too, because of the way that he has sought to make a model of himself for others to follow. Not only did he boast of links to the English Defence League (links that the EDL was quick to play down and the British government quick to investigate), he sought to encourage others to be more violent, by attacking nuclear plants, for instance. His plan appears to have been conceived and executed alone, but his actions take modern-day right-wing extremism out of the chat room and down to the gunsmith.

They mark a step change beyond thuggery and racist attacks, purporting to move right-wing extremism away from the yobs and the neo-Nazi fringes and into the realm of mainstream politics. Those pictures of Breivik posing as a soldier, not to mention his rambling, plagiarised prose, show that the man does not see himself as a terrorist or racist. He considers himself a right-wing revolutionary. As he said at his appearance in court on Monday, he wanted to "change Norwegian society".

That is why the spectre that Breivik confronts us with is not solely the possibility that there may be another "lone bomber" out there - though that concern led Europol to announce it was setting up a task force to examine right-wing extremism in Scandinavia much more closely. The true fear springs from the way in which his views became an extreme expression of what is regularly discussed in the mainstream: in Breivik's case, the right-wing and electorally successful Fremskrittspartiet (Pro­gress Party, or FrP), which he left several years ago, and the British EDL.

FrP may not be responsible for the filtration of its ideas into extreme formats online, and nor for that matter are right-wing anti-immigration think tanks in Britain. Yet, across Scandinavia, politicians are emerging who are edging ever closer to the extreme right, and their discourse serves to legitimate it.

From the True Finns to the anti-immigrant Danish People's Party to Geert Wilders's Party for Freedom in Holland, the proximity of each of these political groups' official views to the "gruesome but necessary" solution that Breivik believed he had hit upon should be watched at least as closely as intelligence agencies will now watch the known extremists. As he himself said, his aim was to make "moderate cultural conservatives more approachable . . . by broadening or expanding the very definition of extreme".

More humanity

It is good to see that while Norway has been in mourning, it has also been alive to this challenge of relating context to consequence. It has been far more alive, in fact, than Britain was after the 7 July 2005 attacks, or Spain after the Madrid bombings of 2004.

The Norwegian prime minister, Jens Stolten­berg, has impressed in this regard. "Our answer," he said in a moving speech to a memorial service at the domkirke on Sunday morning, "is more democracy, more openness, and more humanity, but never naivety." It was as much a critique of western anti-terrorist policy, and of the many knee-jerk assumptions of foreign leaders that a terrorist attack in the west must necessarily be the work of al-Qaeda, as it was a rebuttal of the murder of many young people he knew personally.

The prime minister's decision to lead the collective mourning and to remain self-composed has encouraged others to follow suit. Immediately after the massacre, Eskil Pedersen, the leader of the Arbeidernes Ungdomsfylking, who was in Utøya when Breivik began shooting, told journalists in a firm but calm voice: "We will take Utøya back." Pedersen also refused to give details of quite what it was that he had witnessed.

The following day a page of a national newspaper, Aftenposten, was given over to the popular novelist Roy Jacobsen to write a short but eloquent editorial about what lay ahead. He wrote that the task of society is often not to prevent the worst things from happening but simply to survive them, arguing: "The Norway that will emerge from this will be recognisable."

This, after all, was what got Norway through its last major confrontation with rightist extremism under the Nasjonal Samling collaborationist government of Vidkun Quisling in the 1940s. The consensus in Oslo today is that it is what is most likely to work again.

In this, as Stoltenberg has reiterated in recent days, Norway has more than oil wealth at its disposal - wealth, as the case of Breivik reminds us, being no antidote to extremism in any case. Far more importantly, it has a strong and largely trusting society. There may be a little less enthusiasm these days for collectivist behaviour, such as the "Jante Law" of Aksel Sandemose's 1933 novel A Fugitive Crosses His Tracks, which refers to Scandinavians' distrust of individual success and emphasis on community achievement, or for the tradition of neighbourhood spring cleans, idio­matically known as dugnad. Yet people still believe in the values they represent. As I walked past one of the floral tributes in Oslo on Sunday, I saw a man, sitting in his wheelchair in the rain, a T-shirt laid across his chest and emblazoned with the words "Fred. Frihet. Samhold" - "Peace. Freedom. Unity".

It will be hard for Norway's government to hold on to those ideals in the coming days - particularly "freedom", which could be a casualty of criticism of the country's light-touch approach to security. There will be questions, too, about why Breivik, who cropped up on police watch lists when purchasing chemicals from an online store in Poland, was never checked out. However, I don't see Norway becoming "a land foreign to itself", as the British journalist Andrew Brown said of Sweden after the assassination of Olof Palme in 1986, in his book Fishing in Utopia. On Sunday afternoon I was still allowed to stroll right past the prime minister's house in Oslo despite all that had happened.

The signs are also there in the way that the rhetorical question asked by Norway's tabloids on Friday - "Who on earth is going to defend this murderer?" - was answered by a quiet-spoken lawyer, Geir Lippestad. (Chillingly, Breivik specifically asked for a lawyer who was a member of the Labour Party to represent him, and Lippestad met the brief.) The lawyer said that even at such times - in fact, especially at such times - it was important that a full and fair trial be conducted.

Less encouragingly, the signs of Norway's return to normality are there, too, in the likelihood that the usually boisterous FrP, which has been silent since Friday, will return re-energised to fight the local elections in September. I am sure it will do rather better than many people right now might expect.

What most Norwegians have done this past week is to show Britain, the US, Spain and many other countries that the way to meet terrorism, of whatever stripe, is to reinforce the pillars of democracy, not to start toppling them, the better to use them as battering rams.

“Right now I would rank Norway as the largest country in the world," Barack Obama said of Monday's procession. "I have never seen anything like it." Yes, the events of 22 July have shown that extremism stalks even Scandina­via. It will continue to do so. But here in Norway at least, it will do so now with a proud and resi­lient society staring right back down at it.

Simon Reid-Henry is a lecturer in geography at Queen Mary University, London, and an affiliate of the Peace Institute in Oslo