But the foundations stand firm

After the massacre on Utøya on 22 July 2011, Norwegian prime minister Jens Stoltenberg assumed the role as “comforter of the nation”, a response typically Scandinavian in its implication of a quasi-paternal relationship between prime minister and population. Writing in ‘Samtiden’, Stoltenberg describes the thinking behind the wording of his statements and sees in their overwhelmingly positive reception a “renaissance of the public address”.

As often as I am asked, I also ask myself: How did Norway change after 22 July 2011? I have gradually learnt to live with the realization that ready answers are beyond my reach. The events of that day are so extraordinary that we still seem to lack any kind of mental map to follow. I am convinced that we will need more time to arrive at the right answers and also that they will emerge piecemeal – fragments to be painstakingly assembled into a fine-grained mosaic.

Without extending the analogy too far, the Second World War provides a relevant perspective: information about it still emerges now, 70 years later. The new publications deepen, modify and sometimes alter our narratives about the war. Our views of 22 July will change, too. There is so much we do not know, so much we do not understand. Robust analysis is not yet possible, both because the monstrosity of it all is too immediate and because we lack knowledge. We also lack the necessary filters.

With time, insights into 22 July will accumulate like the annual rings in a tree. I accept that is should be so. The growth of our nation will be affected, as will the development of every individual – including myself. And, like others, I struggle to find words for what this will mean. Do I think differently? Has my behaviour changed? By now, I believe that no purpose is served by trying to arrive at conclusions too early.

However, our personal histories will help us find some of the answers. One part of my own 22 July narrative is the crucial role of the spoken word. Speaking has proved the superior form of communication. This is remarkable, given the fast-moving media of today.

In the evening of 22 July, when a fog of shock and fear hung heavily over the whole country, my colleagues and I were hard at work on the first in a series of speeches. We had been assured that all available resources has been alerted to save lives, treat the injured and secure Oslo against new acts of evil. Terror had struck at the very heart of Norway and this speech had to express the reaction of the nation. How did we respond?

We chose to back more democracy and more humanity, but with no trace of naivety. That evening, there were no dissenters around the table. As it proved later, our response had a broad basis of support in Norway. The only contentious issue was how we would refer to the violence of only a few hours earlier. In the end, I described the attacks as “shocking, bloody and cowardly”. It sounded strange at the time, but after scrutinizing each word, we agreed that they were true. In Oslo and on Utøya, Norway had been subjected to shocking, bloody and cowardly aggression. Next, we had to decide if it was right for me to use such strong language when we knew that many would listen intently. The alternative was to cut the sentence. Or to use more neutral words, such as “a brutal attack”. My view was that trying to soften reality was pointless and this became our guideline for all further communications about 22 July.

Would we have reacted differently if the perpetrator had been a Muslim, an Arab, perhaps, rather than a blonde Christian from Oslo’s West End? With regard to the message of the first speech, the answer is an unreserved no. That evening, we had no idea who the perpetrator was. All anyone knew was that the police on Utøya had arrested a man whose ethnic origin was Norwegian. Was he the only one? From what background had he emerged? The police were chasing other terrorists and feared new bombs. Everything was unclear. This is why I can assure you that the message in my first speech would have been the same, come what may.

Another, more complex question concerns the public debate afterwards: would it have been different? Would we have filled our streets with roses, regardless, or would fury have overwhelmed our grief? We might fear the answer, but what matters is our opportunity to learn. Each one of us has a chance to reconsider. What would your reaction have been if the terrorist had been an al-Qaida agent, and not a blonde Norwegian from Oslo West?

Our honest replies will add up to essential advice for the future. After 22 July, we united around values shared across cultural, ethnic and other boundaries. It was a momentous experience. One week afterwards, Aftenposten published a photo taken in Oslo’s Central Jamaat mosque. It showed an imam and a bishop with their arms around each other. It still moves me. Death opens our eyes to how much more unites us than separates us. The bishop and the imam pray to different gods but, above all, they are human beings. Their embrace stands for the reunion of fundamental human values, of charity and fellowship, of humanity – values that cannot be walled in or fenced off for all eternity.

Never have I felt so strongly to be member of an extended Norwegian “family” than I did after 22 July. I attended funerals held in Christian, Muslim and humanist communities. I spoke in churches and mosques. Grief does not change. Nor does the sense of loss. Nor the hope that death has not struck in vain.

We reunited around fundamental, shared values. These values add up to an inheritance that we must guard always and hold on to when we speculate about how Norway was affected by the events of 22 July. It imparts meaning to care for the good that grew out of the ashes of evil. We should do all we can to prevent the debate from sliding back into suspicion and fear of “the Other “. The Others are us. We are Norwegians. We are Norway.

I shall express myself still more clearly: if there is one thing worth holding onto after 22 July, it is this: remember that the intention of the terrorist acts was to disunite. The bombs and the shootings were politically motivated. The victims were young members of the Labour Party and people working in the executive government quarter, but the aim was to declare war against multicultural Europe. The Norwegian people responded by joining hands in support of their community. The imam and the bishop hugged each other. I find this inspirational. It strengthens my belief that our fundamental values of democracy, humanity and openness will unite Norway’s new generation.

There is no basis for the claim that 22 July will immediately instil respect for people’s right to be different, for equal opportunity and equal treatment, but I feel sure of the new impetus to succeed. The rest is up to us. Do we want these things strongly enough and are we willing to work hard enough to achieve them? I must warn against people putting their faith in resolutions made by Norway’s political class, or initiatives taken by institutions. The authorities must of course do their job, but the most important element by far is that each one of us feels responsible. Each one of us can change the future. “We” – the Norwegians – are capable both of guarding our fundamental values and handling difficult debates. We did it this summer. I hope we will do it more and more often.

During the weeks that followed 22 July, I gave memorial speeches in Oslo Cathedral, on City Hall Square before the Rose March, in Parliament, at the People’s Palace, at the Central Jamaat mosque and in the Oslo Spektrum arena, where the national memorial ceremony was held. I also spoke at funerals all around the country and wrote articles for the leading newspapers. My central message remained the same: our response to terror is to back our community, stand by openness and democracy, but without being naïve about it. Strengthening the police is a contribution to greater openness. It was and is critically important to clarify the logic of freedom; a fearful population is not a free people. A community riddled with fear lacks trust. The more open and democratic a society, the more it depends on effective policing, on controls and international collaboration. This is what I intended with the phrase “but not naively” in my first speech. It is a message I have reiterated in most of the speeches I have made since.

We tried to enlarge on these thoughts in every new speech I gave. In Oslo Cathedral, the theme was to allow oneself to grieve. Two days and nights had passed since the bombs and shootings, and Norway was still in a state of shock and paralysis. We needed to channel our sorrow. Our choice was to use strong images and strong words, to speak as directly as possible. Not to make death any less brutal.

“Many of us knew someone who is gone. I knew several. Monica was one of them. She had worked on Utøya for almost 20 years. To her many friends, she was Utøya. She is dead now. A gunshot killed her while she was at work, creating a caring, secure place for young people from every corner of this country. Tore Eikeland also passed away. At the head of the Hordaland section of Young Labour, he was one of our most talented young politicians. He is dead now. Gone forever.”

My speech to the rose marchers had to deal with two themes. First, I had to establish that the people of Norway had not allowed themselves to break under terror.

“As I look out over the sea of people in front of me today, and as I sense the warmth felt by everyone in the country, I feel reassured: Norway will prove equal to this trial. Evil can kill individuals, but never defeat a nation.”

My second, most important theme was that time passes; that we should look ahead to Norway after 22 July. We worked intensively on getting the wording right, especially with young people in mind. The key was not to be seen as a party politician. We scored out everything that could be misconstrued. My colleagues and I discussed in detail if it was right to mention the coming election. Finally, I made one simple reference: “Use your right to vote”.

“To young listeners, I want to say this: the massacre on Utøya is also an attack on young people’s dreams about helping to make the world a better place. Their dreams were brutally crushed. Yours can become reality. Take with you the spirit of tonight. You can make a difference. Do it! It’s my straightforward challenge to you. Engage. Care. Join an organization. Join debates. Use your right to vote.”

Working on the speech in Parliament, our discussions ended with agreement on one central message: I would invite all parties to reconsider previous statements in view of 22 July. Some pertinent doubts were raised. Conciliation must not be seen as an attempt to stifle essential debate. Also, nothing I said should sound like an attack on the Progress Party. Once more, the wording was crucial and the meaning of each word was precisely evaluated. For instance, we finally changed the sentence “With 22 July as ballast, there might clearly be matters to regret” into “With 22 July as ballast there might clearly be things we wished had been expressed differently.” We intended to stimulate a decent dialogue, not to apportion blame or inflict political damage on those who had expressed themselves insensitively before 22 July. The idea was to invite all open-minded listeners to return home to decency.1

“Many of us will find the time of grieving allows us to stop and take stock of our attitudes. To reflect over what we have thought, said and written. With 22 July as ballast there might clearly be things we wished had been said differently. Views that we will express with greater sensitivity in the future. We allow for this. As I stand in front of you, I ask that we do not begin a witch-hunt. During these unreal few days, we have felt a solidarity that is an incentive to remain generous. The tragedy can teach us something new. We all share the need to say “I was wrong” and to be respected for it.

Preparing for my speech in the Central Jamaat mosque, we discussed in depth whether we needed to make changes to my speech in Oslo Cathedral. In the Christian church, I had not urged solidarity to “us”, the Norwegians; would doing so in an address to a Muslim congregation be misplaced? The reactions on the day showed that I need not have worried about being misunderstood. One mother’s comment means much to me: “Before, I felt like a Kurd, nothing else. Kurds were my people, Kurdistan was my homeland and I would return one day. After 22 July, I tell people I’m Norwegian. Norway is my country and this is where I’ll stay.”

“Now I invite you to join “us” – the Norwegians. Our fundamental values are democracy, humanity and openness. On them, we base our respect for differences, for equality of treatment and opportunity. And for each other. We expect to be questioned and welcome opposition, even when it is uncomfortable. In this place, we stand on sacred ground. It is important that we respect each other’s faiths.”

The national focus on remembrance drew to a close at the ceremony in the Oslo Spektrum arena on 21 August. Naturally, it influenced the text of my speech. We had to look ahead. It didn’t take us long to agree on three themes: to care for each other, be on the alert for any signs of extremism, and to make sure to keep Norway safe. But we spent a lot of time on the last paragraphs: should the final appeal address the individual or to the community? Who should feel most responsible for protecting Norway against new terrorist attacks, the individual citizen or the state? The answer is obviously “both”. I chose a sequence in which personal responsibility came first. Our free choices make the unbreakable links that hold the community together.

“We need something more important. We need you. Regardless of where you live. Regardless of which god you worship. Each one of us can be responsible. Each one of us can guard freedom. Within the community, we forge unbreakable links of care, democracy and security.”

I spoke at seven funerals and weighed my words with care each time. Clearly, one reason was that every farewell demands respect for the dead, but I was also aware that a grieving nation claimed shared ownership of the memorial speeches. Often published online as well as in the press, they add up to perhaps the most surprising proof of a renaissance of the public address that followed 22 July. Every time I spoke in a church, what I said was for just one family in profound grief, but I knew that text would reach many more. My task was to offer comfort, both when I met mothers and fathers and when speaking in public. Every funeral was harrowing, every funeral gave so much. Being allowed to express the compassion of an entire people, of a whole world, lent meaning to our work and also meant much to me as a human being. I drew strength from being allowed to comfort.

On 4 August, I was in Salangen in Troms to attend the funeral of 18 year-old Simon Sæbø. It was a journey of beauty and pain. The northward flight offered panoramic views over the mountains, fjords, islands and every beautiful aspect that we identify with Norway. But we were travelling towards bereavement, towards yet another church where people were preparing to say goodbye to part of their future. I had spoken with Simon’s parents a few days earlier in Oslo. Together with other parents who had lost a child or whose child was in hospital with severe injuries, we had met in the apartment belonging to Roger Ingebrigtsen, Secretary of State for Defence. Strangely, it felt good to meet them again. We shared the meaningful moment when they finally said goodbye to Simon. The speeches in Salangen church were warm and direct. The leave-taking at the grave on that lovely summer’s day is something I shall always remember.

“Dear Tone and Gunnar. Last week, we met in Oslo. Our meeting was deeply moving. We held each other. Felt helpless together. Despairing. Your loss is beyond comprehension. Your beloved son is gone. Your precious child. I am a father. I weep with you.”

Simon was one of several future leaders who had been torn away. I had been impressed by all he had undertaken; for instance, the mentoring of young asylum seekers. Since 22 July, I have met many young people who have impressed me. They are leaders of political youth organizations and others with a social conscience, who debate the most difficult topics with dignity, insight and engagement. I have a feeling that the generation of 22 July will be even more deeply affected by the terrorist attacks than we foresee now. Affected in a good way, or so I believe. During the election campaign, some of the best televised debates were between young politicians. To a greater extent than adults may realize, young people tend to regard the attacks on 22 July as directed at themselves, their attitudes and values. Clearly, this has much to do with the fact that it was young people who were massacred. Many of the Labour Youth members on Utøya had friends among the Young Left, Socialist Youth and Young Right. There were also many members of other organizations, for example Nature & Youth. Goal-oriented young people share a sense of engagement. It creates comradeship that characterized the reaction to the Utøya events.

The outcome is that there truly is a 22 July generation in Norway. We must be cautious when we predict what it might lead to in the future, but we will permit ourselves hope. I hope passionately that 22 July has created a stronger, more secure democratic base for those who soon will take control of political parties and organizations, and hence of political power. I hope that the effect is to reduce fear of different groups in Norway, and that it strengthens the will to hold onto communal values grown out of Norwegian traditions and Norwegian identity.

The time that followed 22 July, I was asked to many meetings of Norwegian journalists and editors, who scrutinized – or said they would scrutinize – the media coverage. Unfortunately, I had no opportunity to attend, but I applaud the initiatives. The media play a crucial role in shaping our experience of the shared space where attitudes are formed and issues debated. It is as important for editors and journalists should be aware of their own shortcomings, as it is for the media to reveal the shortcomings of others.

For instance, it is good for democracy that NRK (Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation) has analysed its coverage during that July day and also subsequently. Other media companies would do well to follow suit. Everyone has something to learn. Generally, it is important that all media activity should be investigated and evaluated. We know from experience that a collective media drive can exert massive pressure on its targets, while, simultaneously, each editor is responsible only for his or her own product. It is a dilemma and I think it essential to recognize how it operates, even though it is far from easy to suggest a solution.

One place to start, if the total media coverage is to deliver a trustworthy impression, is to ask the public to join the evaluation. The 22 July Commission is a possible model. The government collaborated closely with parliament on the appointments to the Commission. If anyone is to trust its report, it must work without interference from those who want to catch a glimpse of the cards it holds. The Commission has been given a wide brief and its own secretariat. Will the media follow the politicians’ lead and ask the public to support the Institute for Journalism in its current examination of the media coverage of 22 July? Transparency will be well served, if they do.

The first of the televised debates between the party leaders took place two days after the national memorial ceremony at the Oslo Spektrum arena on Sunday 21 August. It was not an easy transition. After a month of maintaining an absolute focus on deaths, funerals, unfathomable grief and attempts to comfort, my staff and I had 48 hours to switch our attention to the Norway-wide election campaign – to demands for safer roads and new health centres, to complaints and, occasionally, to expressions of satisfaction. We had to leave existential questions behind and return to the political working week. It was as if a sportsman who hasn’t trained for a month had been allowed two days’ preparation before entering a major competition. Catching up would be hard.

I had much to catch up with, too, and was very short of time. Normally, I would have set several weeks aside to read up and prepare for the first TV debate. On that Monday morning, we put our heads down and set about dealing with the many questions waiting for our answers. Which issues would dominate the campaign? Which mattered most to us? Above all, what should be the tone of the debate? It was a real problem. We had made it very clear to the other parties that we expected no quarter and that brisk exchanges were what wanted. Even so, we also realized that some of the listeners would be immersed in grief. Arguably, in order to show consideration, we should stay in a low key, almost an extension of the memorial discourse. Making up our minds proved straightforward: I would stick to what felt natural and true. I was marked by the grief I had experienced and had to find expression for it. At the same time, I was convinced that we should conduct as normal an election campaign as possible. That conviction, too, should be expressed.

And so it was. When the first political snowball rolled down the hill, I chased after it. Politics matters and an election campaign is the highpoint of freedom and democratic participation. Over the years, I have learnt to concentrate on the next thing. I know this was helpful when I turned from grief to politics. That the transition was incomplete goes without saying. I thought about 22 July every day. There was always something to remind me of the death and loss inflicted on the workers’ movement in Norway.

Was it good or bad news that, once started, the election campaign was quite like the previous one, and the ones before that? Good news, I think. It seemed to me that the political parties managed to balance their respect for the dead and for democracy. Respect for the victims meant the campaign never turned into a bear garden. But it was impossible to dampen down all political flare-ups. Besides, we would have done politics a disservice. Many of those who were wounded or died on Utøya lived and breathed politics.

After 22 July, the questions I was asked most often were concerned with how I had been affected by the terror, as political leader and as a human being. I understand why. It is perfectly relevant to ask how the prime minister feels after such a shattering event in the history of his country. The atrocity has undoubtedly marked me. I carry the imprints of grief, of the terrible events. That time can easily be brought back to mind. The trigger can be a newspaper item like the Aftenposten story about the group hiding in the school room. Or meeting a young man or woman who was on Utøya. The pain will remain part of me forever.

I have also reached a better understanding of, and respect for, the importance of the leader’s presence in critical situations, of his ability to express emotions in words, share the sorrow and offer support to people who feel their existence is threatened. To be a leader, a prime minister, is both about leadership in matters that can be counted, measured and weighed, and about the capacity for emotional leadership. The 22 July was all about the latter. The experience has strengthened my respect for the power of words. For me, this seems paradoxical.

Objectively speaking, as prime minster and political leader, I have contributed to measures important enough to influence life in Norway for decades to come – trade regulation and pension reform, handling the financial crisis. Policies in such areas determine the resources available for nursery schools, cultural colleges and road maintenance for years ahead. Some decisions are critical for good, responsible stewardship of our natural assets. If we succeed with this, Norway will be one of only a handful of countries to do so. In other words: we undertake large and important projects, but ones that are almost impossible to communicate engagingly. Few will thrill to phrases like “health-adjusted life expectancy”, to name but one.

The case of 22 July is exactly the opposite. Learning how deeply words about grief can move people has been a powerful experience. Only a few days ago, the employees in a Copenhagen museum came along to thank me for my speeches. It was yet another confirmation of the importance of emotional values for leadership.

Outwardly, little has changed. I still enjoy the city. I get out and about in the countryside as actively as ever. I am positive that, since 22 July, I have met, greeted and hugged more people than ever before. This is important to me. The distance between the electorate and the politicians must be small. Losing that proximity would be a defeat.

On no account should we gamble with security. People and politicians alike must feel safe. Police patrolling the streets create a sense of security, as do helicopters on stand-by and frequent controls. But there are limits to preparedness. We cannot police every corner of every town. Nor can we station helicopters in every neighbourhood. At all times, controls must be weighed against their effects on openness. In my opinion, we managed to maintain openness throughout the time of terror. We found the balance. At least, I feel safe as I travel around Norway. I felt safe before 22 July and I still do.

The last and toughest question is: has 22 July changed us as human beings and, if so, how? I shall take a leaf out of my dear colleague Sigbjørn Johnsen’s book. When presenting a new national budget, at some point the finance minister usually expresses himself in poetry. My choice is from the poem “You must not fear the darkness” by Erik Blomberg:2

You must not fear the darkness,
inside it rests the light
Without dark skies above us,
we’d see no stars at night.

The pale ring of the iris
Surrounds the pupil’s black
The dark is what all brightness
feels fearfully it lacks.

You must not fear the darkness,
inside it rests the light;
You must not fear the darkness
its heart is truly bright.

Translator's note: Stoltenberg's veiled invitation to certain political parties to "reconsider previous statements in view of 22 July" is a reference to the nationwide debate about immigration. Some mainstream politicians have gone on record as holding more or less overt anti-immigrant views. The report Immigrants in the Norwegian Media published by the Norwegian Directorate of Integration and Diversity (IMDi) is a source of balanced information: www.imdi.no/Documents/...

From his 1920 collection The Earth (Dahlberg, Stockholm). Translation by Anna Paterson.

Published 31 December 2011
Original in Norwegian
Translated by Anna Paterson
First published by Samtiden 4/2011 (Norwegian version); Eurozine (English version)

Contributed by Samtiden © Jens Stoltenberg / Samtiden / Eurozine


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