Ten years after, still light years apart

Apologies for the recent bout of radio silence – suffice to say that having my first book published has proved to be more work than I expected.

For me, being a writer and working in communications is the best job imaginable, but like most people in my situation, I have to keep producing in order to survive.

Thankfully, this work takes my to the heart of the things and places and ideas that appeal to me.

Ten days ago, my work brought me back to Oslo for the first time since Anders Behring Breivik shattered the peace with his bomb and his guns.

What I saw surprised and comforted me in equal measure.

No lockdown at the airport.

No armed police on every street corner.

No security guards in the lobby of the hotel by the central station.

No sense of fear and foreboding.

Whereas terrorist attacks in New York and London provoked fear and loathing and a lust for revenge, the Norwegian people have heeded the call of prime minister Jens Stoltenberg.

More democracy.

In short, in the aftermath of Breivik’s attacks, little has changed.

Long after the flowers left in memory of those who died have wilted, those feelings inspired by Stoltenberg’s reaction to the horror remain strong.

More dialogue. More understanding. More compromise.

There is still, of course, opposition to immigration in some quarters. These things don’t disappear overnight.

The difference is that that debate is now stripped of the dangerous provocative rhetoric that is still on the rise in other European countries.

Whereas the rest of Europe engages in megaphone diplomacy, shouting from its entrenched positions on left and right, Norway is in reasoned conversation with itself.

The very fact that a country that had the heart ripped out of it only a few short weeks ago can do so is proof that Behring Breivik and his extremist counterparts have lost the ideological battle he claimed to be waging; they have been shown up for the irrational, illogical, selfish demagogues they are.

His manifesto, the much-hyped handbook of the hard right, has proved not to be the new European testament; instead, it is the narcissistic ravings of a thankfully small minority.

The silence from the Sweden Democrats is perhaps the greatest symbol of all; for such parties, there is nothing left to say that hasn’t been drowned out by Breivik’s bombs and bullets.

In his fury, Breivik has killed the thing he loved the most; his vision of the re-establishment of an ethnically pure Scandinavia died along with his victims.

The calm that quickly returned to the Oslo streets is in sharp contrast to yesterday’s scenes in New York. Ten years ago, America’s answer to a similar attack was the “war on terror”.

Yesterday, they gathered at Ground Zero to remember- “never forget” was the mantra.

For the hundreds of thousands who have lost their lives since that awful day – British and American servicemen and women among them – “never forgive” may have been more appropriate.

SInce 9/11 the discourse in the US has hardened considerably, and political positions remain as entrenched as ever.

Domestically at least, peace is till a long way off.

What tends to get forgotten is that after 9/11 America started a war on terror, and wound up at a war with itself.

The fear, distrust and loathing aimed at the likes of Mohammed Atta and Bin Laden and selfishly nurtured by both sides are now directed at the other side of the House. Ten years on, democracy is still held hostage by their legacy.

In Oslo, peace has already returned. In the face of a similar unspeakable evil, common sense prevailed.

The reason? More democracy.

Those few short hours in Oslo were enough to convince me that if something as precious as democracy is worth fighting for, fighting for it should be our very last last resort.

Believe it. It happened.

Just one of the hundreds of thousands of roses at the Oslo gathering on July 25.

The discussion about what happened in Oslo and Utoya will continue for days and months and years, but already at this point change needs to happen.

When we talk about it, we need to stop saying “it’s unbelievable”, “it’s without reason” and “who would do such a thing?”.

Believe it. It happened.

We know who did it.

And however twisted, there were reasons.

Though it’s a term I’ve used myself, we need to stop characterising Anders Behring Breivik as a madman.

That’s not because he wasn’t, but because every time we describe him as one we are absolving ourselves of our responsibility to understand why he did what he did.

No more than Mohammed Atta, Bin Laden or Timothy McVeigh, Breivik didn’t just fall out of the sky.

He is the product of a family, a school, a church, a university. He had friends, he likes soccer and he worked out.

But he went a little further than the rest of us. He went further than the vast majority of people could in their worst nightmares imagine.

Somewhere along the line, something awakened a hatred of his fellow man in him – not just a hatred of Muslims.

He hated all of those whose politics differed from his, even if they were mere children. He sentenced them to death.

He executed them.

What is unique about Breivik is that he wants us to understand what he did. Unlike many mass murderers, especially those who have gone on shooting sprees, he did not take his own life, but instead surrendered to police.

He can now be interviewed, studied, analysed. He can explain his motivation to us.

And in his staggering arrogance, he has even given us a 1500-page explanation of his entire ideology and method – meant to inspire others to follow in his footsteps, it is vital ammunition in the fight against all violent extremists, and not just those of the anti-Islamic far right.

He will give us even more. What he longs for most of all is to speak from the dock, with the world’s press present, to put forward his ideology to the world.

He sees himself as a martyr to his cause, yet somehow he remains blind to the remarkable similarities between himself and the radical Islamists and “cultural Marxist” bogeymen he claims he wants to destroy.

Breivik claims in his writing that he has spent the last nine years planning this attack.

Nine and a half years ago, in September 2001, two planes struck the Twin Towers in Manhattan.

Anders Behring Breivik was probably sitting in front of his television, listening to the pundits telling him that what he was seeing was “unbelievable”, “without reason” and “impossible to understand”.

“Who would do such a thing?” they asked.

When Anders found out that it was radical Islamists, he believed it. He found a reason.

Then he sent out on a path that led him to Utoeya.

To stop others – on both sides – following his path, we need to understand.

We need to believe it. We need to accept that there are people who do such things.

We need to realise that, even though they are madmen, they are someone’s father or son or husband.

And we need to find a way to stop them coming to the same extreme convictions that Breivik has.

Terror comes to the quietest town

The first thing you think of at times like this is your friends and colleagues.

A few weeks ago I was sitting in the pissing rain marvelling at the enthusiasm of my Norwegian colleagues as the Diamond League came to town.

We were in the press room, and I and everyone else not born with gills was complaining about the incessant rain. Not the Norwegians.

Even Usain Bolt was non-plussed by the weather- “I’m a sunshine boy,” he said, answering a question about the rain with a look of distaste.

But the natives are used to working in adversity and I was hopeful that my friends and colleagues were uninjured.

That Diamond League night I was working with Kurt, and it was with great relief that I heard his voice asking a question at a press conference in the aftermath of what appears to have been a car bomb in the heart of the government district in Oslo this afternoon.

A check on the Reuters wire showed that Alister was alive and well and tapping away on his keyboard just a couple of blocks from where the city was torn in two.

Micke and Siri will show up too – pros that they are, they won’t be answering anything that is not from their producers or their families. For all I know it’s their pictures I’m seeing on the screen.

An offer to go and help out on the ground has been politely turned down so far- this is a big story, and already the big guns (for want of a better word) are being sent in to cover it.

It’s too early to say who is behind what appears to be the most pointless terrorist attack to date, but it won’t be long before the mud is thrown.

I’m not sure I care who is behind it just yet either.

What is more important is that the authorities get the situation sorted out and that the people don’t shut down their open, democratic society in the wake of this atrocity.

This is, after all, the country that sponsors the Nobel Peace Prize, a country well-respected in it’s efforts to bring peace to the Middle East (not least via the Oslo Accords) and to Sri Lanka.

As I watch the footage – hopefully shot by my friends and colleagues in Norwegian media – of debris and damage on the streets which I walked a couple of weeks ago, I hope that whoever did this is watching too.

And I hope they realise the futility of what they did.

Because if you feel that you have to blow up bombs on the streets of the quietest, most peaceful capital in the world to make your point, then your cause is not worth fighting for.