Saturday 23 July 2011

23.07. Norway attacks

By now, most people around the world with access to a television will have heard about the twin attacks on Norway. I have received a number of emails and SMS yesterday and today with sympathy declarations and questions whether my relatives are safe. Living here in London, Norway and Norwegian politics seems very distant most of the time, and in the 12 years I have regarded London as my home, I have only been back to Norway to visit family on 3 occasions – the last time in 2006. But when a catastrophe like this happens, I think any person living abroad feel closer to their home country than ever, regardless of how many years they have been away. Although many things have probably changed since I emigrated, I have the last 24 hours got confirmed over and over again that one thing has not changed since I left; the Norwegian open society.

It is very difficult to explain to the rest of the world what that means, especially as we as Norwegians take our way of living, our way of democracy, and our open society as such an important and essential way of living that Norway would not be Norway if this way of living was ever threatened or taken away from us. And why would it ever be threatened? How could anyone be against such an ideal way of living? Everyone have the right to express their opinion without the threat of persecution as long as you don’t harm anyone else. Brilliant! Isn’t it? Well I think so, but I am Norwegian…and I grew up in Norway and was 35 when I moved to London so I am perhaps not entirely objective in this matter. However, as part of the open society in Norway, we also welcome people from all over the world who for some reason have serious problems in their own country, with war, political persecution or for other reasons deemed important enough by the Norwegian government. As a result, Norway is an accommodating country, extremely tolerant of all religions and political views.

Norway's modern migration policy is based on the idea that the welfare state, the thread that ties Norwegian society together, has limited resources. Hence, two basic principles have remained consistent throughout Norway's development into an immigrant-receiving country: 1) immigration must be limited; and 2) all immigrants who are admitted to Norway should have equal legal and practical opportunities in society. The two major pillars of Norwegian migration policy — restrictive admissions and equal treatment — have been present throughout the development of Norway into a significant reception country for migrants and asylum seekers. The result is a policy based on values that balance entrance controls with generous integration and social services for immigrant populations.

The population of Norway today is about 4.9 million. According to Wikipedia, the five largest immigrant groups in Norway are in turn Polish, Swedish, Pakistanis, Iraqi and Somali. The number of immigrants in Norway is currently approximately 552,000, which corresponds to 11.4% of the total population (2010). In addition to these, 206,627 are born in Norway with one immigrant parent, 30,766 are born abroad with one Norwegian parent, and 36,688 are born abroad to Norwegian parents (including adopted children). According to Reuters, Oslo is the "fastest growing city in Europe because of increased immigration". Compare these figures to the UK, and the number for 2010 is exactly the same; again according to Wikipedia: The foreign-born population of the United Kingdom includes immigrants from a wide range of countries who are resident in the United Kingdom. At the time of the most recent UK census, conducted in April 2001, 8.3 per cent of the country's population were foreign-born. It has been estimated that the foreign-born population had grown to 11.4 per cent by 2009–2010. (The data from the UK census conducted in spring 2011 are not yet presented.)

OK, so what’s all this got to do with what happened on Friday afternoon? I don’t know yet, there are a whole lot of speculations by the media and everyone else, it might have absolutely nothing to do with it and it might have everything to do with it. Some speculations goes in the direction that the man that planted the bomb in central Oslo killing 8 people and injured many, then later on raided a Labour party youth camp and shot and killed at least 84 and injured countless other was a right-wing extremist angry at the Norwegian government for their immigration policy. I have no idea if that’s the truth, if he was acting alone or if he was part of a group or organisation; only time will tell and I am not going to speculate. However, Norway’s immigration policy is part of a wider attitude that is deeply rooted in the Norwegian society; an open, friendly, welcoming society where you can speak your mind and have an opinion and seek refuge if you are no longer safe in your own country. That is something so fundamentally Norwegian that I think you have to have lived abroad and seen other ways of living, in order to really appreciate how valuable and special it is when a whole country, broadly speaking, including the press, the politicians and the police are fully behind such an ethos.

Will yesterday’s tragic events change the society? Will Norwegians become suspicious and unfriendly after this? If you listen to the speeches given by the Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg and the king, King Harald V, they both reminded everyone that the Norwegian way of living is so fundamentally important to everyone in Norway. The king said:

The incidents in Oslo and Utøya are attacks on the Norwegian society which we value so highly. They are an attack on the core value of the Norwegian democracy. He went on to say:

-I hold on to the belief that freedom is stronger than fear.

-I hold on to the belief of an open Norwegian democracy and society.

-I hold on to the belief in our ability to live freely and safely in our own country

Yesterday evening, before it was clear who was behind the bomb attaches and the shooting, Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg gave a speech on Norwegian television where he said: 

This is a message to whoever has attached us: They will not destroy us. You will not destroy our democracy and our engagement for a better world. We are a small nation, but a proud nation. No-one will be able to bomb us to silence, no-one will be able to shoot us to silence. No-one will ever scare us from being Norway.  

I hope they both are right; I hope Norway never change, never becomes a closed society who are afraid and suspicious. Is that possible after an event like this? I have lived in London for 12 years; I was here during 9/11, I was here when London had its own 9/11, on the 7th July 2005, and subsequent bombs 2 weeks later. Although, these are not the first time London has experienced bombs; the IRA has had numerous more or less successful attacks on London and other cities around the UK, commonly referred to over here with the surprisingly meekly word ‘The Troubles’! As a foreigner, and a complete bystander to the conflict, I can’t for my life understand how anyone can name such a horrific longstanding conflict ‘The Troubles’, but that is a completely different debate, for a separate occasion. After 9/11 a lot of things changed here in London. We got police with machineguns in airports, train stations and tube stations. And after July 2005 we regularly see police with machineguns in other places like shopping centre and pedestrian streets. No-one bats an eyelid anymore if they pass two patrolling policemen with their index finger firmly placed close to the trigger on the machineguns, when they are out doing their weekly shopping. And we are getting used to rigorous checks if we are participating in mass events, like football matches, concerts etc. Some years ago I was attending a free, outdoor concert in my local park and at every entrance the police were placed to search everything we brought with us in to the park. As this was a family event where we all were encouraged to bring our own food and have a picnic, with 10 000 people attending, one can appreciate what a job the police had. I must admit I found the whole part exhausting, as we all had to queue up for forever to get searched. When it was finally my turn, a tired, sweaty and definitely not smiling female police officer looked in my plastic bag and pulled out the mono pod for my camera. She looked at me with a suspicious face; I looked back and waited for a question…possible along the lines of….is this for your camera? I didn’t get a question, she continued to hold my monopod (the same as a tripod, but with only one leg), continued to look at me and finally I said, as politely I could: "Is there a problem officer?" She almost screamed at me: "What is this thing??" I nearly jumped back one step, and as we both were holding my plastic bag it became a bit comical at that moment, but I composed myself and answered: "It is a monopod, a support for my camera, since I am using a crutch it is difficult for me to hold my camera with both hands." I went on: "It folds out and attaches to my camera. Would you like me to show you?" …but by that time the police officer had lost interest in my newly acquired gadget, I was hushed along and she didn’t actually look at the rest of the content in my bag. I could have had several kilos of plastic explosives for all she knew….I didn’t have any, honestly, all I had was some really nice food that I was going to eat during the concert. But if someone wanted to create mayhem that day, they could have, despite police presence. And so they can everywhere else; the police are not there primarily to prevent acts of terror from happening, but to deter terrorists from even contemplating creating new terrorists actions.

Living in London makes you a bit immune to news about violence and terrorism, we have had a lot, but the chances of being shot or stabbed with a knife is far greater than to die from an act of terrorism. Put that in a different perspective, take for example all the children under 18 that die crossing the roads or playing close to roads every year here in the UK, and the chances of dying from acts of terrorism or shooting/stabbing becomes…what should I call it? Hardly none-existent? That doesn’t mean that the catastrophe in Norway isn’t significant or important; I think it will be a very important watershed for Norway and it will perhaps change the society for forever, though I hope it won’t change it too much. Journalists here in the UK have been talking about the ‘naivety’ of the Norwegian people, that they have been sitting in their own corner of the world thinking that something like this couldn’t happen to them. I don’t think the Norwegian people are naive, far from, I think they were right when they thought this couldn’t happen to them; it hasn’t until now and how on earth should the Norwegian society have been prepared for an event like this, or even have been able to prevent it? This could have happened anywhere, in any country in the world, and it has happened in many places before, if the early information we are getting are true. If this was an act by a lone man, then this was comparable to the incidents in American schools where ex-students went in and shot and killed many people. The only difference being the addition of the bomb. I don’t think any country could ever be prepared for an incident as horrific as this, regardless how vigilant they normally are in terms of security.

My heartfelt condolences go out to everyone who has directly or indirectly been touched by the twin attacks on Norway on Friday the 22nd July. I sincerely hope that the events of last Friday will make the proud people of Norway stand together in the process that follows, in the weeks and months to come, and I really hope the words of the Prime Minister comes true, that the people won’t allow this to change what is so fundamentally Norwegian; an open and inclusive society which is there for everyone who are in need. It would be very sad to see armed police at football matches, concerts and events and metal detectors at secondary schools around the country to weed out knives and guns – all routine here in London. I hope we won’t have to see a debate about whether measures lik this will be necessary from now on to protect the citizens of Norway. If that means the press abroad is going to continue calling Norwegians ‘naïve’, then so be it. It’s not really being naïve, it is a way of living – the Norwegian way.

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