It’s 10 AM and I’m watching a memorial ceremony on TV from Oslo, reading the names of the 77 who lost their lives 6 years ago in what has been called Norway’s 9/11: The bombing of a government building, and the shooting of young people attending a political camp on the island Utøya on July 22 2011. I’m crying again.
On July 22 2011 my TV was on for 6 hours, broadcasting everything that was happening, starting with an explosion in downtown Oslo at 3:25 pm. There was complete confusion: Nobody knew what had broken windows in many buildings. By 5 pm it was confirmed that a bomb had gone off. We would learn later that 8 people were killed. The offices of the national newspaper VG were also hit. Rereading their report—before anyone knew what was going to happen next—the caption on the link to a video stands out: “Hallo!? Er det noen som trenger hjelp?” Some of the strongest images I first saw on that day were of people filming the rubble and smoke and confusion, calling out with desperate voices to any survivors.
And then another report: Shots fired on the island of Utøya where members of the Labour Party’s youth group was gathered for a summer camp.
That was Anders Behring Breivik’s plan: Cause so much confusion, mayhem and death in Oslo that emergency services would not be available at Utøya (less than a half hour away from Oslo by helicopter). He was a little late in parking his bomb. On a Friday in the middle of vacation time, many had already left the office by 3 pm so the number injured and killed was less than it could have been.
Civilians, people who happened to live on the mainland by the lake Utøya is in, actually got out their boats and headed towards people in the water, people who had jumped in the lake to escape the bullets. The police were slow to react and to organize their response; they were relying on the usual chain of command, which didn’t work because it was vacation time in the police, too. In their defense, nobody was expecting an act of terrorism, a mass murder, a lone killer who was well-prepared and very determined. But yeah, Breivik started shooting at 5:21 pm and the police didn’t get to the island until a good hour later because they didn’t have their own boats. Once the police were there, though, they overpowered and arrested Breivik quickly.
I keep crying as I write this, as I listen to the memorial speeches. I remember the shock 6 years ago. It was my last day of vacation. Bored, I turned on the TV and wondered why NRK was broadcasting news at 4 pm. I quickly realized that something horrible had happened in Oslo and continued to watch. Then the reports of shooting started to come in. I stayed glued to the TV until bedtime. The events were so unbelievable, so overwhelming, so shocking. The next day I did not turn on the news at all. I was feeling overwhelmed. On Monday July 25, I stood in the pouring rain in downtown Bergen, with thousands of other people, participating in a combination memorial and peace march.
But as I revisit the events, I realize something that gives me joy: Norway didn’t change after July 22. Norwegians are still trusting people. Nobody has spoken out in hateful ways. The memorial today focused on peace, on fighting the elements that create racism. And: We haven’t yet learned to be afraid about being out in public, in spite of terror alerts. Of course, that’s also deliberate: Not letting “them” win. Business and life as usual is the Norwegian way.
The challenge for Norway after “22. juli” has actually been in how to handle the personal aftermath, how to support those who survived or who lost a loved one that day. Today’s memorial service was inspired by the one held in Nice this year for last year’s Bastille Day attack. We learned that it is better to remember our lost loved ones, to name them, rather than stay quiet about it. That being allowed to share grief in public is better than grieving alone.
My reaction to July 22—in 2011 and now—tells me I’m more Norwegian than I thought.