I was at a summer camp on the outskirts of Oslo when we heard it go off. My mum had driven up from Copenhagen that morning, picked up my grandparents, and whisked over to watch our end-of-camp performance. We were later grateful that the show started late, an uncommon trait for us Norwegians. The kids were excited to show off what we’d learned about Norway’s history, and with all the parents sitting in uncomfortable plastic chairs, it began.
However, not long after the performance started, we heard a loud boom coming from the distance. Everyone looked around, confused expressions on our faces, but we all brushed it off as thunder. Later, as we were saying our goodbyes and getting ready to leave, a girl ran over to me to say that there had been a bomb set off in the centre of Oslo. I relayed this startling information to my mum, but she didn’t believe me. She then fished her phone out of her bag to find numerous missed calls from friends in Norway and abroad, along with panicked voicemails asking if we were okay. It all finally began to sink in. A bomb had gone off in downtown Oslo.
My mum, my grandparents, and I all piled into the car and cautiously began to drive home. We were careful to not drive downtown, but we still saw the smoke rising in the distance. The radio was on and NRK was reporting that “there’s been a bomb outside the Prime Minister’s Office,” but the number of dead was unclear and so too were the perpetrator and the motivation. We saw cars speeding towards hospitals, presumably with injured people in backseats. Once we arrived home, calls were made to all friends and family in the city to make sure all of them were safe. We turned on the coffee machine and settled in to watch the news; the worst was yet to come.
Attack and Assumptions
On July 22, 2011, Anders Behring Breivik murdered 8 people with a homemade bomb in the regjeringskvartalet, the area of Oslo that included the Office of the Prime Minister. He then drove to the island of Utøya, where the Labour Party’s youth organisation was hosting its annual summer camp. Breivik impersonated a police officer in order to gain access to the island, pretending to be a messenger of the attack in Oslo. He proceeded to shoot and kill 69 people, most of whom were teenagers.
When the attacks first happened, people immediately began speculating about the perpetrator. To some, if not many of us, the assumption was immediately an Islamist. It didn’t occur to us that it would be a homegrown, white, Christian, Norwegian man who used to live a few houses down from our friends. And we weren’t the only ones: international news outlets reporting live assumed the same and ‘terrorism experts’ continued to insist the perpetrator was a member of Al-Qaeda even after there was confirmation of who actually did it.
His motivations and identity served as superficial descriptions on the news and in reports in the direct aftermath of the attack but a few years down the line, following similar attacks with white supremacists quoting Breivik, these have become the basis for comparison, discussion, and debate about white supremacy, patriarchy, and xenophobia.
Breivik was unabashed about his motivations for the attack. So much so that he presented a 1518 page manifesto titled “2083: A European Declaration of Independence.” One of the main components of Breivik’s ideology was Islamophobia – actually, that’s too light of a word. A phobia is an irrational fear – Breivik hated Muslims and wanted to see them eradicated and any trace of Islam gone. The title of his manifesto hints at this as the number 2083 was in reference to the 1683 Battle of Vienna where European forces defeated the Ottoman Empire. 2083 to him would signify the second defeat of Islam in Europe.
Breivik’s motivations were described by journalist Spencer Ackerman in short in a paragraph of his book Reign of Terror: “His enemies, after the Muslims and the women, were the progressive, respectable ‘cultural Marxists’ who dominated Norwegian politics, and he divided them into categories of traitors to be executed or spared. It made no sense to him that the bloggers who had so insightfully diagnosed the horror of the white man’s condition stopped short of endorsing the mass Muslim deportation that was so clearly necessary. Like Grandpa Millar of Elohim City, what Breivik sought was, functionally, a white man’s caliphate.”
The Marxism that Breivik critiqued in his manifesto did not even refer to exploitation and bourgeois rulers but rather to what he viewed as ‘cultural Marxism’ which had “infiltrated” Norwegian society. By attacking a bunch of kids at a summer camp, Breivik was, in his mind, attacking, as political psychologist Barry Richards described, “trainee members of the Marxist political elite that he holds responsible for Islamic colonisation.”
Richards encapsulated Breivik’s motivations in short form by stating: “What terrifies him is the prospect of his brittle besieged masculinity being engulfed in a society where sexuality and gender no longer take clear and predictable forms.” He continues by explaining that in Breivik’s argument, “…the fusion of feminism, feminisation, matriarchy, androgyny, and homosexuality threatens to engulf the Christian European heterosexual male, the hero of history who is not an object of contempt and hatred.” Breivik positioned himself as a victim, being overrun by radical ideas of equality and diversity, and positioned his terrorist act as heroic and necessary.
Throughout my life and during my growth as an activist and student, my memories of the attacks have always remained. When the attacks happened in Norway, the country had time and space to heal. We had time to cry, to honour and remember those lost. Survivors had their day in court. Survivors gave powerful testimonies, telling Breivik to his face what a coward he was. The country was able to see the disgusting perpetrator brought to justice. Bjørn Ihler, a survivor of the Utøya attack, described the court proceedings as making Breivik appear as less of a “scary monster” and more like “a pathetic man.”
He was found to have been fully aware of what he did and was thus tried as such. The Court accepted a report which concluded that Breivik was of sound mind when he committed the atrocities that he did, which many in the public embraced because if the opposite had been found to be true, many believed he wouldn’t have been held fully accountable for his actions. He was found sane and guilty and sentenced to 21 years in prison, Norway’s maximum sentence. Americans especially were shocked as this seemed like a light sentence, but Norwegians were relieved and continue to believe in Norway’s restorative justice system. Breivik will continue to be held through review as long as he is deemed a threat to society. Restorative justice was not the sole priority of his sentence; perhaps more importantly giving survivors a voice and a space to heal was the ultimate intention.
As a people and a nation, we moved forward.
One of the reflections that I’ve kept in mind in this last decade since the attack is that the healing process which Norway was able to have is not the reality for many around the world. Without sensationalising the attacks that take place in many countries, nor framing any region as a land of eternal despair, the comparison remains a good, critical and important one: we had time to heal but countless people, families, communities, and countries don’t. They never have their day in court. They don’t see the perpetrator brought to justice.
Instead, imperialism and never-ending wars continue with no end in sight. Arms companies and the governments in bed with them sleep well at night with their pockets lined, with no regard for the countless people they have harmed, traumatised, injured, and murdered. When we look at the events unfolding in the world, with some never-ending wars and Western-backed coups, to say that these fall outside the folds of similar ideals that Breivik held of white domination, patriarchy, and xenophobia would be wrong. To put it lightly, that is the connection. We cannot continue to ignore the very present ideals like the ones Breivik held which continue to be present within our societies and harm people every day, from daily microaggressions to extremes like this.