Egoiste from Norway

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The 2011 Norway attacks conducted by a lone wolf terrorist on 22 July 2011 claimed a total of 77 lives. In his book «The Almost Nearly Perfect People» British author and journalist Michael Booth wonders what the Norwegians really are like. These are excerpts from his book, published by kind permission of the author.

‘Innocence ends when one is stripped of the delusion that one likes oneself.»
John Didion

Even in midwinter the sun is so sharp it forces me to squint, reflecting off the snow it turns the landscape into a light box. The air is brisk and, as I make my way from the airport terminal, I catch the scent of fresh pine. The bus driver grunts when I ask if he is going to Oslo centre. I assume this is an affirmative but, as we drive, I scan the view anxiously for clues that we are heading in the right direction. We drive past the yacht harbours that fill the fjords surrounding Oslo and, between the regimented conifers, I catch glimpses of dayglow hikers bearing those high-tech walking sticks that make them look like they have mislaid their skis, striding in single-file along the forested hillside paths. I am reminded just how extraordinarily beautiful Norway is. It is perhaps the most beautiful country I have ever seen.

130515-Anders-Behring-Breivik
It is seven months since a 32-year old Oslo man, the racist extremist Anders Behring Breivik, single-handedly doubled Norway’s average annual homicide rate in one afternoon, killing a total of 77 people. One of his chief bugbears about non-Western immigrants – who were the indirect subjects of his attack that day – was that he held them responsible for most of the violent crime in Norway. Well, not now they weren’t.

From my seat in the bus nothing appears to have changed. What did I expect? Razor wire and police patrols? Hardly likely in a land where the then prime minister, at the memorial service to the dead of Utøya and the Oslo bomb, gave one of the most courageous speeches in defence of public freedom I have never heard. Jens Stoltenberg had called for ‘more openness, more democracy’, at a time when most politicians elsewhere in the world would have used an attack of that nature to pledge revenge, exploit the anxieties of the electorate, garner greater authority and power, and then compromise civil liberties. His speech was a reminder that the political leaders of the North have often served as moral compass of the world.

Jens Stoltenberg
Wandering around the capital – mostly trying to find a restaurant I could afford, peering at the menus outside like some starving match girl – the atmosphere seemed to confirm my impression that little had changed. There were no barricades on Oslo’s streets; no new security measures in this sturdy, restrained city; no X-ray machines on the Metro; no armed police patrolling its malls; no security checks at public institutions. You could still walk right up to the front door of the royal palace, which remained free of any kind of fencing or gates.

Royal Palace Oslo. Photo: Tor Kjolberg
Royal Palace Oslo. Photo: Tor Kjolberg

So the furniture and fabric of Norwegian society appeared not to have altered, and it occurred to me later that day, as I caught the tram to Blindern, the stop of Oslo University, that merely to ask the question, ‘How has Breivik changed Norway?’ was to grant the man a far greater significance than will ever be his due. But the question needed to be asked, and that was why I had returned.

Belgium's Flemish right wing Vlaams Belang party member Veys poses with a part of the manifesto written by Anders Behring Breivik, at the Belgian Parliament in Brussels
Though eventually judged to be quite sane, this crazed narcissist, the son of a Norwegian diplomat and a nurse, was clearly mad as far as the average observer was concerned, his psychological well-being apparently fatally fractured – assuming it had ever been whole – from an early age. The crack-up had been compounded by personal setbacks in adulthood, his life in retrospect seeming to have traced an inevitable parabola towards destruction of one kind or another (his suicide at some stage in the future would seem to be the natural end point). Breivik was the classic tragic loner, living with his mother, fuelling his racist paranoia by browsing Islamophobic rantings on the Internet, meticulously, nerdishly cutting-and-pasting them into a garbled 1,500-page manifesto detailing everything from his multiple, hate-filled delusions about the Muslim threat, to his preferred aftershave – Chanel Platinum Egoiste – a diatribe that he then mailed to 1,003 people across Europe. (Therefore we can call him Egoiste from Norway, ed. remarks).

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What could the actions of a mentally bill man tell us about the country that made him? Nothing, presumably. Yet Breivik’s attacks must have shaken the foundations of Norwegian society – the unprecedented scale of his slaughter would have ensured that – but there was also the inescapable fact of his ethnicity to deal with. This unthinkable act of violence had been carried out by a Norwegian, not a non-Western Islamic extremist, not a foreigner – as was the case with various, thankfully small-scale, attacks in Sweden and Denmark in recent years – but a Norwegian born and bred: Europe’s first anti-Muslim terrorist.

‘The first picture I saw of him on 22 July was where he was wearing his Lacoste T-shirt with upturned collars,’ one Norwegian had told me. ‘And, you know, I thought, “I know him, I see him at football games, I’ve gone to school with this guy.” He’s so ordinary.’

I have to admit, and I am not especially proud of this, but there was the very slightest sense of relief when, in the house after the first bomb had been detonated in central Oslo and the world’s media had jumped to its default Islamic terrorist conclusions, the real identity of the perpetrator emerged and it transpired that he was as Norwegian as one could be. The relief that this was not the work of Islamic terrorists was, of course, entirely separate from any reaction to the crime itself, relating more to fears of the potential retribution such as an attack might have inspired. An Islamic terrorist attack as heinous as this would have seen the political discourse om immigration and race blasted back to the Middle Ages. One presumes life would have become untenable for many Muslims living here, as was the case in the US in the wake of 9/11; and one assumes, too, that the attack would have been used by the mainstream right wing throughout Scandinavia to shore up their support, as also happened after 2001. In the few hours before Breivik’s identity became known, various far-right websites and blogs had already begun to unleash their predictable and violent anti-Islamic sentiments, and several Muslims were physically assaulted in the Norwegian capital.

Certainly, the Norwegian Police Security Service had not foreseen such an event; in a report written just a few months prior to the attacks they stated that right-wing extremists did ‘not represent a serious threat to Norwegian society in 2011’.

One presumes it would have been at least marginally easier – only very marginally, admittedly – to come to terms with the attacks had the perpetrator been an outsider, someone from an established category of aggressor. Instead, it was a blond-haired, blue-eyed Norwegian ‘patriot’. One of them.

The Norwegians had reacted to the attacks in various ways: horror, obviously; solidarity, mainly; revulsion at Breivik’s opinions, of course. Nut some felt there had been too much discussion of Breivik’s mental state and not enough about his views and the extent to which other Norwegians might agree with them. One Norwegian commenting on an online article on the Guardian website about a Danish theatre production based on Breivik’s manifesto, which premiered, rather tastelessly, during his trial, wrote: ‘Here in Norway there has been very little discussion of what he said. The fact is that it’s much less far from the mainstream than many are willing to accept – whilst most Norwegians are not racist, some held deeply troubling views…Norway does need to ask itself some very serious questions about why the world’s worst single-gunman atrocity happened here, in the apparently peaceful and harmonious country where nothing bad ever happens.’

Prior to 22/7, as the attacks are more commonly referred to in Norway, the country had the strongest mainstream right-wing party in all of the region, and one of the strongest in Europe: the Fremskrittsparti, or Progress Party. Though its popularity dipped following Breivik’s attacks, in the last parliamentary election to take place in Norway, in September 2013, the Progress Party, led by the pugnacious blond Siv Jensen, won 16.3 per cent of the vote. Its triumph was all the more astonishing given the fact that Breivik was, for many years, a highly active member of the party. Until 2013, the Progress Party had been routinely shunned by the other political parties but, crucially, this electoral triumph was enough to make it a partner in the new centre-right coalition government for the first time in its history.

The Progress Party’s unprecedented electoral success would appear to confirm the description of Norwegians I had heard from their neighbors as just a shade to the right of the Ku Klux Klan. Norway has accepted far fewer immigrants than either Denmark or Sweden, for instance, and has recently taken to repatriating denied asylum seekers at a rate of 1,500 or so a year. Coverage of the Breivik attacks had also mentioned numerous right-wing Norwegian organizations, activists and bloggers, highlighting what appeared to be a disturbing sub-culture of Islamophobia in the country, ranging from Facebook groups for people who refused to ride in taxis driven by Muslims, to those of the so-called Eurabian school, who believed their government was part of an early seventies conspiracy on the part of European oil-thirsty governments to allow Muslims to take over Europe in order to appease the OPEC nations (there are actually people who believe this, the fact that Norway is one of the largest oil producers in the world seeming to have escaped them).

Vidkun Quisling
Vidkun Quisling

On a previous visit to Norway I had read in Dagbladet that the Holocaust-denying British historian David Irving was going to be given a talk near Lillehammer that week. Though the Norwegians proudly boast of having a more active and successful resistance movement than the Danes, some Norwegians did collaborate with the Germans during the occupation of 1940-5, not least their then prime minister Vidkun Quisling, whose surname was famously adopted as an eponym for traitors everywhere. Norway’s most celebrated literary figure, Knut Hamsun (kind of their James Joyce), gave his Nobel Prize to Goebbels, and wrote a famous obituary of Hitler in the Norwegian collaborationist newspaper, Aftenposten, calling him ‘a reformist character of the highest order,’ adding, ‘We, his close followers, bow our heads at his death.’ Hamsun’s reputation never really recovered. Aftenposten remains the country’s most popular daily newspaper.

Just how right wing was Norway? How had Breivik’s actions altered the political landscape? Had the black shirts been tucked away at the back of the wardrobes, where the swastika neck tattoos being hidden by high collars, had the Islamophobic Internet trolls withdrawn to lick their wounds?

Read also:

A Literary Masterpiece About the 22nd July Massacre in Norway
The Nearly Almost Perfect People
Danish Bacon
Michael Booth on Scandinavia