The terrorist attack in France last week really hit home for me, as it did for most Europeans. It also brought me back three years, to when my country struggled to heal after our own terrorism nightmare.
22 July 2011 is a date that is permanently etched into the Norwegian psyche. After detonating a 2,100-pound fertilizer bomb in the centre of Oslo, killing eight and destroying our government administration buildings, right-wing fanatic Anders Behring Breivik drove to the island of Utøya where he shot dead 69 participants in a Labour party youth camp. Most of the victims were kids and young adults.
Breivik was later arrested on the scene.
It was a time of chaos. The country was mourning, shocked and angry. The weeks and months that followed were awful: We cried, we held rose ceremonies against terrorism, we buried the dead.
In April 2012, the televised Breivik trial started in a newly expanded Oslo District Court. These are some things we took away from it.
- The terrorist was not a monster
Before the trial, the circulating pictures of Breivik were mainly those he had prepared himself. Posing in a self-made Knight Templar uniform, a biological hazmat-suit or black combat gear, he presented himself as a commander in a growing army of militant ‘cultural conservatives’.
As we found out more about him, that illusion burst. There was no army; he was just a guy. In court, we saw a mild and shy, surprisingly soft-spoken man.
He had felt destined for greatness, but hadn’t achieved it. He was a salesman, but not a very good one, who ended up selling fake school diplomas on the internet. He stayed in his mum’s flat, where he would spend days in his room playing computer games.
We also saw an emotionally crippled Breivik, self-absorbed and unable to grasp the emotional effects of his actions. Once during the court proceedings he broke down in tears, not for his victims, but during the screening of a short propaganda film he had pasted together and uploaded to Youtube.
“Breivik is showing an enormous narcissism”, newspaper commentator Anders Giæver wrote.
“His fascist greetings are a scared man’s desperate attempt to live up to his actions”, Aftenposten journalist Kjetil Østli noted in his review of the trial. “Someone who doesn’t dare to look you in the eye is not a monster. I pity this man. He is a tragedy. Without meaning, lost.”
- His grand ideas were silly
Breivik demanded the abdication of the Norwegian king and the resignation of the government. Control of the military should be handed over to him, and a new country was to be created within Norway, reserved only for the non-socialist, indigenous population.
During the concluding remarks of his testimony, which were recorded by an audience member and uploaded to Youtube, he based his claim that society is corrupting Norwegian girls on the TV-series Sex in the City. Characters Samantha and Carrie, he knowingly pointed out, “have had sex with more than 100 men.”
Norwegian society, he also argued, is suffering from a collective psychosis of self-hatred. Self-deluding Norwegian cultural Marxists need “immediate medical treatment”. His evidence? Our entries to the Eurovision Song Contest.
Alexander Rybak, a celebrated Norwegian musician and violinist who immigrated to Norway at the age of five and won the European contest in 2009 with his Norwegian-folk-music-inspired song “Fairytale”, was just a Belarusian immigrant with Tatar background. The winning Norwegian entry from 2011 by singer Stella Mwangi was nothing but a “bongo-track”.
Despite the sombre setting, his bizarre lines of reasoning caused repeated bursts of laughter in the audience.
- Terrorists are not, by definition, mentally ill
One of the main points of contention in the trial was whether Breivik should be declared legally insane.
The two court appointed psychiatrists first diagnosed him with paranoid schizophrenia. Their conclusion was based on the nature of his crime, his lack of empathy, problems in his childhood and his extremist, grandiose worldview.
Breivik’s view that Europe was in war between “good and evil” and his belief that he could “decide who should live and die” were evidence of his insanity, they said.
But there was disagreement. According to public broadcaster NRK, at least three out of seven members of the Forensic Commission, a body set up to evaluate such reports, had disagreed with the report’s conclusions.
After media pressure and public disagreement from other court-appointed psychologists and psychiatrists, the Court commissioned a second report. This eventually concluded that Breivik did not suffer from paranoid schizophrenia, and that he was “not psychotic, unconscious or severely mentally handicapped” at the time of the crime.
Most of the media, and three out of every four Norwegians, agreed that Breivik was mentally fit to be given a regular prison sentence.
In its verdict, the Court agreed.
The first report had not sufficiently considered his political ideology, Judge Wenche Elizabeth Arntzen noted. “The Court finds that the defendant’s ability to carry out these heinous acts may be explained by a fanatical right-wing extremist ideology… combined with pathological or deviant personality traits”, she said.
- Don’t be too scared to listen
Just prior to launching his attacks, Breivik uploaded a 1515-pages political manifesto to various internet sites and sent it to politicians and right-wing contacts throughout Europe.
Looking for an understanding of what motivated the attacks, many Norwegians, myself included, along with many others worldwide, read parts of it.
The media analysed it and described it in detail. Despite some controversy, newspaper editors pointed out the benefit of presenting the material in a context where it could be analysed and challenged.
The analysis of the manifesto showed a poorly put-together work, full of contradictions and arrogance. A majority of the content was copied and pasted from other right-wing sources, such as articles by the Norwegian blogger “Fjordman” and the manifesto of Ted Kaczynskis, the Unabomber.
When the trial started, most of the proceedings were broadcast live by the national broadcaster.
It was difficult to listen to. Every day, evening newscasts presented the day’s events in court. Newspapers gave live commentaries and every headline featured Breivik case in one way or another.
Even before the court case, it was clear that people were getting tired. A national survey found that 68 percent of Norwegians felt there had been too much media coverage of the terrorism case.
That, however, did not deter Norwegian editors. As professor Frank Aarebrot of the University of Bergen told Aftenposten: “It’s reminiscent of the term war-weariness. That the public is sick of the war and wants to read about something else doesn’t mean that the media should stop covering the war.”
Right-wing extremist organisations have been unable to gain much popularity in Norway since the Breivik case. Our neighbouring countries Sweden and Finland both have a higher degree of right-wing extremist violence. Some would argue that this is in large parts because of the massive media coverage of Breivik’s ideology and manifesto, and the effects this had on our public debates.
- Public debates should not be censored
In the wake of the national tragedy of the terrorist attaks, there was a consensus in Norwegian media that the national debating climate must be improved.
Two days after the attack, Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg held a speech in Oslo Cathedral. “We are still shaken by what has hit us, but we will never surrender our values”, he famously said. “Our answer is more democracy, more openness and more humanity. But never naivety.”
During Breivik’s appearances in Court, he gave his inability to access mass media debates as the main motivation for his terror attack. He said he knew his actions meant he would be demonized and laughed at. But, “this demonization is still better than being ignored,” he said. “Being ignored is the worst of all.”
Newspapers were keen to raise the tone of the debate and make it more inclusive. After the court case, “Fjordmann”, Breivik’s blogging muse, was given a stipend of £7,500 for a book project by the organisation Fritt Ord (Free Word). He and his compatriots also wrote pieces that have been published in some national newspapers.
Similarly, airtime has been given to other groups with extreme views. In August last year, leading newspaper VG controversially aired a 43-minute interview with radical Islamist Ubaydullah Hussain, the then spokesperson for the salafi-jihadist organization Profetens Ummah (The Prophet’s Ummah). The decision was criticised by some extremism researchers and by Minotenk, a think tank for minority issues.
But although these editorial decisions may seem counterproductive, many in Norway feel that given our history we cannot afford to ignore extremist views and thereby validate their accusations of societal and media suppression.
It is also certain that in our digital age, ideas and extremist material spread like wildfire. Censoring radicalism or extreme viewpoints is futile. Our weapons against recruitment to extremism must be inclusion, conversation, fairness and logic.
We will never know if Breivik’s massacre could have been prevented if he had felt more included in media debates, or if anyone who listened to him could have alerted authorities to the potential danger. Quite possibly, it would have made little difference. But experience from Norway’s attack has shown that terrorist ideology becomes much more dangerous when it passes under the radar and is left unchallenged.
For better or for worse, France will not conduct a court case against these most recent of terrorists. But in order to prevent the next Breivik, Kouachi and Coulibaly from choosing violence and radicalism, we must engage and challenge, not stigmatize and exclude.
As Bjørn Ihler, one of the Utøya survivers who witnessed Breivik slaughter his friends, said during the trial: “You cannot have an open debate if one of the parties is not heard. I want more freedom of speech for Breivik. I want the debate to be as open as possible.”