The whole world knows about the bomb in central Oslo followed up by the slaughter of teenagers at a summer camp on one of those idyllic pine-clad islands in the Norwegian lakes.
It’s so dramatic as to be beyond fiction. Anyone writing a story like that and presenting it as fiction would be see his or her editor’s eyebrows creeping up in disbelief at something quite that unbelievable. But it reinforces the adage that truth is always going to leave fiction lagging way behind in the strangeness stakes.
As the story broke it was deeply disquieting how every news media seemed to be determined to pin the blame on chaps with beards who don’t eat pork or drink alcohol. Speculation was demanded from every expert wheeled out in front of a camera on whether Al-Qaida or Gadaffi was behind the bombing and the subsequent shootings.
The shock was that this wasn’t a professional terrorist, but a fair-haired, educated nutcase of the homegrown variety – not a bearded Muslim, but just the opposite – a smart, clean-shaven xenophobe with delusions of starting his very own jihad.
While this is new to Norway, neighbouring Sweden has experienced terrorism in the past, including the to this day unexplained murder or Olof Palme on a Stockholm street that still lurks like an angry ghost. Denmark has only recently seen the controversy over Jyllands-Posten’s publishing cartoons that caused deep offence in some parts of the world, with some very credible threats to people’s lives and a firebomb attack made on the Danish embassy in Pakistan.
Norway and Iceland have been happily free of political or unexplained violence. Both were occupied during WW2, when German-occupied Norway had a considerably rougher time than Iceland had first under the British and later the US military. This is now on the verge of disappearing from living memory as the number of people who remember occupation dwindles and violence becomes the stuff of folk legend or video games.
But now terrorism is no longer something that happens to other people. It will undoubtedly take Norway a generation or more to come to terms with the explosion in Oslo and the mass murder on Utøya – probably many more years than its perpetrator will spend behind bars, used as a symbol of everything that might be seen as wrong with Norwegian society.
Apart from a few driving offences that are, let’s face it, virtually unavoidable under Norway’s ludicrously strict traffic regulations, the Utøya gunman had never been in trouble with the law. He had taken pains to look normal, act unobtrusively, fit in with the crowd and not draw untoward attention. He had even made himself a fairly successful businessman while the fruitcake extremist was carefully hidden away behind the façade of normality.
What is staggering about this is the sheer extent of it. Killings on this scale are usually the preserve of governments or terrorist organisations. But this guy was working alone, or so it seems, and had been carefully preparing his Friday afternoon massacre for years, buying and stockpiling ingredients for his home-made and devastatingly successful bomb. Then there’s his bizarre 1500-page manifesto that’s still widely available on the internet, that sets out all of his crackpot reasoning. I’ve dipped into it, and it’s genuinely stomach-turning stuff.
Understandably, Norwegians will undoubtedly agonise and search their souls over what happened in Oslo and Utøya. The fact that it happened in peaceful, comfortable Norway simply makes it all the more shocking, but in reality, this could have happened anywhere. There are nutcases everywhere and the rise in xenophobic extremism is deeply disturbing. There’s no shortage of thickheads across Europe, not to mention the rest of the world, who delight in downing a dozen beers and declaring to anyone around them that all their problems can be blamed on (insert virtually any racial/cultural/national stereotype you fancy here), before staggering home and wondering the next morning who the hell spiked their drink the night before. The difference is that this guy – I’ve avoided using his name as he has enough publicity already – had the intelligence, perseverance and the dedication to carry it through.
The murders in Oslo and on Utøya will without doubt remain a vast landmark in the collective Norwegian psyche for years to come, but there’s every chance that the Utøya gunman’s actions will have the complete opposite effect to what he had wanted to achieve. Hopefully it will simply make people think a little and raise some awareness that the people next door aren’t really that much different to us and while they might have beards, wear funny hats, drive on the wrong side of the road or have strange accents, they’re not really that much different.
It’s a thought that when he emerges from prison in 20 or 30 years, he’ll hopefully find a society even less like the one he wanted to create.