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Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Personal reflections on the unthinkable in Norway

I am on vacation in Turkey and am completely out of the media loop. But I am finally online and feel a strong urge to adress the tragedy in Norway anyway. I feel like it hit close to home in several ways, so in order for this to remain only a somewhat rambling post I will focus on my personal reactions in this post, and leave for a second post the matters that I usually deal with on this blog and in my research.

(To advertise the second post: browsing through the mass-murderer's "manifesto" and manual, it is clear that he is wholly and almost exclusively obsessed with the supposed "Islamisation" of Europe and the "multicultural/Marxist" betrayal of the European nations. The title of the manifesto alludes to the Second Turkish Siege of Vienna, it has a Templar's (crusader's) cross as cover image, and it is in part a compilation of writings by other anti-Islamists on the web, from known Islamophobic blogs etc., and replete with references to writers like Daniel Pipes, Frank Gaffney, and Bat Ye'or. It is also a very very chilling read.)

But let me here be a little personal instead.

First of all, all those directly affected by this tragedy have my deepest sympathy. Sweden - my native country - and Norway were one country not too long ago (until the Union dissolved in 1905), and the two countries are still close. Our two languages are similar enough for us to understand each other without need for translation, and we share the geography of two stretched-out countries that lie side-by-side far to the north in Europe. Like all Swedes, I have several Norwegian friends.

Norway to the West, Sweden to the East. Wikipedia Commons.
When my grandparents up in the Jämtland region of central Sweden wanted to celebrate something or just feel a little fancy, they would dress up in their finest clothes and take the train or car a few hours West to Trondheim in Norway. There, they would eat a nice dinner at Palmehaven, the best restaurant in the small town. Then they would spend the night at Britannia Hotel (the town hotel in which the restaurant, by the way, was located) or return home the same day. I have a fond memory of joining them once, and remember the stunningly beautiful Norwegian scenery from the train window. So, like most Swedes, I feel a certain affinity to Norway and Norwegians.

A different but no less fond memory I have is of attending a youth politics summer camp in Sweden as a teenager. This has little to do with Norway, but a lot to do with the kind of camp at which the kids on Utöya were so savagely attacked. My camp was a truly wonderful, educational, inspirational, and simply fun experience. For me, it was a rare occasion to hang out with likeminded kids, who were as interested in the greater political world and in the power of ideas as I was. The camp was full of teenagers that believed - in the youthful manner that so many of us loose later in life - in the power to make the world a better place through democratic political action. We learned, debated, argued, swam, and had a lot of fun.

There was a lot of impressive brain power in that camp and a lot of heart. And we learned a lot, in many different ways. For example, everyone took turns helping an older kid who was rather severely disabled, with all his chores. I had never before helped someone my age who was unable to sit on a toilet go to the bathroom before, but I did so there, and I think I matured a little in the process of doing this and generally doing my part to help this boy for the duration of the camp, along with my friends. And I still remember the smart girl, a few years older than I, who explained to me the relation between European integration and the democratic deficit, which was a real revelation to me. These two random examples illustrate the range of intellectual and simply humane lessons we learned at the camp.

So it was 68 kids of the kind I was back then and of the kind of amazing friends I made at that camp, that Anders Behring Breivik murdered in cold blood on Utöya on July 22. This is also why this event has touched me so (I was physically nauseous for an entire day when I first heard about it and after browsing through his manifesto yesterday, I had nightmares all night). About these wonderful teenagers and children, he writes the following in his manifesto, emailed to his network of fellow Islamophobes only hours before his attack:
In many ways, morality has lost its meaning in our struggle. The question of good and evil is reduced to one simple choice. For every free patriotic European, only one choice remains: Survive or perish. Some innocent will die in our operations as they are simply at the wrong place at the wrong time. Get used the idea [sic]. The needs of the many will always surpass the needs of the few.
I hope we never, ever will get used to this idea. These children and teens were indeed innocent but they didn't just get in his way: they were of course, with unbearable cruelty, deliberately chosen and targeted by Breivik. And they didn't perish due to some imagined threat of Europe's Islamisation, as the quote and the rest of the manifest suggests they would if they don't choose the "right" side, but by the hand of a xenophobic and Islamophobic extremist.

This is all I can do at this point. There is another post waiting to be written about this mass-murderer's connections to more mainstream Islamophobia - the depiction of him as simply a lone lunatic seems wholly misleading after having skimmed through his manifesto (and also in light of the fact that the there is information that suggests that he had accomplices, link in Swedish). In many ways, he simply acted on all the hatred that already is out there, most of it online, albeit with a degree of callous and calculated cruelty that evidences a profound and pathological lack of empathy. And, given that Islamophobes from Pat Buchanan to Sweden Democrats are coming out in defense (that's right, your eyes did not just deceive you) of the ideas of one of the world's cruelest mass-murderers only days after the massacre, there is apparently a need to refute them.

But that post will have to wait as I can't bear another night of nightmares. In the meantime, I wish we could all respond by reaffirming precisely the values Breivik struck at on Utöya, but did not manage to extinguish: empathy and humanity.
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