FOR THE LAST THREE WEEKS, I’ve been living on the remote island of Husøy, which lies directly on the Arctic Circle in Northern Norway. This is the site of the Træna Festival, with which I have had the privilege of working since early 2009, having first attended as a writer in 2008 on behalf of The Guardian. It’s a remarkable place, an archipelago of around a thousand islands of which only four are inhabited, full of a stark, windswept beauty, its festival staffed largely by volunteers from the Træna Kommune.
This year I stayed behind afterwards in order to write, trying to articulate what it is about the place that makes me compelled to return here, year after year, even – earlier this March – during a brutal winter. As with many of Norway’s smaller communities, its doors are unlocked, its cars are parked with their keys still in the ignition, and its residents say hello to one another on its streets. It’s not entirely different to the little England of yore (whatever ‘yore’ is) that the likes of The Daily Mail wistfully recall, except that this is the 21st Century.
Træna has its problems, of course, as my extended visits to the island have confirmed, and as only a blind idealist would deny. But it is a homely, warm community that has always made me feel like I am part of it, even though I circulate amongst only a very small number of its inhabitants, fail to speak their language, and have never stayed more than a month. Every time I leave, however, I try to take with me a sense of what makes it so special and implement that in my own life.
I had just returned from a walk to the island’s only store last Friday afternoon when the news of Anders Behring Breivik’s appalling acts of savagery in Oslo and Utøya started to break. I saw it first on Facebook: over the years I have made friends with a great number of people in the Norwegian capital, as well as elsewhere in the country, and it was Claes Olsen, the boss of the Øya Festival, that first alerted me to the fact that something was up when he posted an update about a huge bang that had shaken his office. In the hours that followed, I watched as a stream of baffled comments transformed into a torrent of concern, fear, and ultimately outrage at what had happened in the city centre, followed by a desperate confusion as word of the shootings on the island of Utøya started to spread. The country felt under siege from an unknown enemy, and it was a feeling that I shared. Having grown up in a military family, and having lived in London for ten years, I know what it’s like to live with the spectre of terrorism, but I, like every Norwegian, had never expected to experience its horror here.
Soon people began changing their profile pictures, adopting in many cases the Norwegian flag, in others an ‘I ♥ Oslo’ logo. As my news feed swiftly transformed into a riot of red, white and indigo crosses, I, too, changed mine to a photograph I had taken of a flag flapping in the breeze at the stern of the boat on which I had buzzed back from the next door island of Sanna during the festival two weeks earlier. Initial reports hypothesised casually that the bombing was the action of an Islamic Fundamentalist organisation – it took The Guardian only two hours to publish an article under the headline ‘Suspicion falls on Islamist Militants’ – and this was seemingly confirmed when a group called the Helpers of Global Jihad claimed responsibility. But, even after it began to become clear that the vile actions had in fact been carried out by one of the country’s own, an extreme Nationalist Norwegian with former ties to the increasingly powerful but perfectly legitimate right wing party, the Fremskrittspartiet (Progress Party), the flag continued to fly on Facebook.
It was only later that evening, when another friend, the comedian and TV / Radio presenter Espen Thoresen, questioned the proliferation of the flag in such circumstances, that I started to think about the significance of its use. “A Norwegian has used today to become one of Norwegian history’s greatest mass murderers,” he wrote. “And on Facebook it’s flagged like it’s 17th May. Hooray?” May 17th is Norwegian Constitution Day, a national holiday celebrating the country’s adoption of its constitution in 1814, and he had a point of sorts: Breivik had, in a sense, hijacked the Norwegian flag, using his nationalist views as the justification for his terrorist acts. (Make no mistake, this was the conduct of a terrorist, however often the word ‘extremist’ has replaced that description since the culprit’s identity became known .)
I remembered how uncomfortable I had started to become, the older I got, at the sight of the Union Jack after it was hijacked during my youth by the National Front, and I wondered whether there were parallels to be drawn. That debate has continued in Norway as Breivik’s motives become clearer: is it right for people to gather under a symbol that the culprit himself must have embraced? I have often commented to friends in the past that I believe patriotism and religion are the two forces that have been used to justify more mindless acts of violence throughout history than any other, and distancing oneself from Breivik’s actions by rejecting the flag which he claimed to be defending might have been a legitimate response. Yet I, and many of my friends, still continue to fly the flag on our profiles without shame or discomfort.
There’s a reason for this, and it lies at the heart of what makes these events so tragic. Norway is, without a doubt, the most open, friendly and civilised nation I’ve ever visited. Though there are problems within its communities, particularly in the light of growing immigration and the complications that inevitably brings – something underlined by the support that grows for the aforementioned conservative Progress Party – the Norwegian flag has not, as yet, been successfully commandeered by the country’s far right. It instead stands for the mainstream social values of the country, and Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg’s speech late on Friday night summarised these in a breathtaking fashion: “The answer to violence is even more democracy, even more humanity.”
I’m not the first to compare his reaction with George W. Bush’s comments a few months after the 9/11 attacks on New York, in which he declared, “Those who struck America think they can run and hide… I find it amazing that the al Qaeda leaders are more than willing to convince some of their brethren to commit suicide. Yet they themselves hide in caves. And that’s why this phase of the war is dangerous, because we’re going to hunt them down. They think they can hide, but this patient nation will do whatever it takes to bring them to justice.” It is important to note that Bush was speaking four months after the attacks, and that his initial speech on September 11th was considerably less inflammatory. But by January 2002, Bush was speaking in terms painfully reminiscent of vigilante justice. Rather than look into his heart to see whether his country’s policies might have influenced events in a negative fashion, Bush took a position of moral superiority and waged war against those who felt at odds with what America has come to represent. Arguably, the shooting of Osama Bin Laden earlier this year might be said to reflect the fact that nothing has changed in the decade since.
But Stoltenberg, within mere hours, was looking inwards, advocating a response that allowed those whose voices are in the minority to be better heard, speaking a language that promoted greater understanding between those with opposing views and which sought to include, rather than exclude, them. “Tomorrow,” he announced, “we will show the world that Norway’s democracy grows stronger when it is challenged.” Two days later, during the memorial service, he repeated his conviction with the words, “Our reply is: more democracy, more openness, and more humanity”. His words were echoed by Oslo’s mayor, Fabian Stang, who said, “I don’t think security can solve problems. We need to teach greater respect,” and the country’s King underlined their noble response even further: “I keep the faith that freedom is stronger than fear.”
As Stoltenberg was preparing his first speech, a picture began to circulate across Facebook showing a man of Middle Eastern appearance cradling in his arms an injured woman of most likely Asian origin on Oslo’s streets that afternoon. Most of the time it was posted without further comment. None was needed. I accept that many of my friends on Facebook are liberals, and that elsewhere rhetoric of an entirely different nature may have been expressed. But the picture seemed to sum up Breivik’s hideous failure to understand what has made his nation so great. It expressed why Norway still has the right to fly its flag with pride: it is a nation largely blessed with compassion for others, regardless of their race, creed or belief.
In contrast, Britain’s Union Jack, and England’s St George’s flag, whether we like it or not, have become symbols of imperialism, right wing extremism and – thanks to Britpop – loutish hooliganism. (It’s additionally worth noting that the St George’s Cross was a symbol adopted by the Knights Templar, also the name of the “international Christian military order” to which Breivik has claimed to belong.) So the anxiety expressed by Espen Thoresen at the spread of his nation’s flag was worth voicing, but it was unnecessary. Norway’s flag has not been appropriated for dubious political ends. It is simply a statement of national unity rather than anything more sinister. Or, as one of the islanders here pointed out, those waving the flag on 17th May are not only Norway’s white, Nordic residents.
When people ask where I’m from, I realise I am embarrassed – not ashamed, I hasten to add, but embarrassed – to say that I’m English. It’s a terrible admission, but it’s true. I’m proud of the land, of my family and friends, and to be a product of a country that has given so much to the world. But I cannot be proud of the antiquated values it continues to cling to or the divisionist policies it espouses. Like most countries of significant power, it has failed to recognise that today’s world, like the internet, is not a community of nations. It is instead a community of beliefs, in which borders are little more than figments of our imagination. There will be seven billion people on this planet by October this year, 5.4 billion more than a century ago, according to statistics from the UN Population Division, and huge numbers of them are drifting well beyond the frontiers of their homeland. The old order, in which a nation’s identity is defined by the nature of its historical inhabitants, is no longer relevant. The passports we hold are simply the result of an accident of geography.
What matters now are the ideologies and principles we share, and how they are integrated into this community. In the days that have followed Norway’s darkest hours since the Second World War, the country has shown us a way forward. Informal polls on Facebook have rejected calls for the reinstatement of the death penalty for the likes of Breivik. From what I have seen, any initial kneejerk reaction to the atrocities pointing a finger at Islamic fundamentalists has been replaced by a recognition that evil exists within all forms of extremist belief, whether they are alien to the culture in which we have grown up or not. While the country grieves for those who have died or been injured, it has sought to understand how this could happen, and how to prevent it from taking place again, but by trying to build bridges between those with contrasting outlooks rather than extending their divisions.
The community spirit that I have seen exhibited on the island upon which I write this – an island full of typical social conflict, just as exists anywhere where people have the freedom to think for themselves – is perhaps less special than I initially thought. It is indicative of a mentality that flourishes throughout this whole country, one to which I have travelled repeatedly the last half dozen years. It is of course much easier for smaller societies to live peacefully with one another, especially one so sparsely populated, and this country’s entire population of 4.9 million is not much more than half of Greater London’s alone. Furthermore, it is not perfect here by any means: one only has to emerge from the capital’s central train station, where addicts hustle for spare change or lie slumped on the steps with needles hanging from their legs, to see that. Its treatment of the indigenous Sámi people until recently was also deeply troubling. In addition, the policies of the Progress Party are eliciting a worrying response that seeks to exclude those who are ‘other’, a policy pursued by the more radical elements of right wing parties worldwide. But the empathy for others, something still enshrined in the nation’s mentality, gives Norway the right to fly its flag without any sense of shameful, nationalist associations. To be Norwegian is a state of mind rather than a state of origin. Its compassion, its ability to embrace diversity and its belief in a sense of fellowship are not only admirable: they are enviable.
As the world continues to come to terms with the events of the last few days, it has an opportunity to learn from what has happened here. There is nothing to be gained by anyone seeking to see themselves as anything except members of a global village, as cliché as that sounds. Norway’s catastrophe is our catastrophe too. We must recognise that we share a planet populated by citizens with a variety of beliefs and values. But whatever those are, the vast majority of us share one common goal: to live side by side, despite increasingly less space to do so, without conflict or intolerance. So rather than change Norway, as many have suggested Breivik might have done by destroying the country’s innocence, these events should instead help change the world, and give us all the motivation to aspire to the values, freedoms and civilised mentality that he so callously exploited.
In the wake of Friday’s attacks, lines by Norwegian poet Nordahl Grieg, from his poem ‘May 17th 1940’, were widely circulated across Facebook: “We are so few in this country – every fallen is a friend or brother”. We now number more than ever before on this planet, but we are all, in a sense, Norwegian, whatever the circumstances of our birth dictate for the purposes of paperwork. Each one of those who fell is a friend or brother to us all. The time has come to recognise that no nation has the right to consider itself better than any other. This isn’t a competition.
But if any nation currently has the right to see its values reflected elsewhere, it is Norway. The country’s dignity, humility and restraint have reminded us what it means to be alive. It has refused to be cowed by terrorism, and their politicians and royal family have continued to move freely amidst the public, quite literally embracing them in the streets. In the country’s reaction to this tragedy, those (as I write) 93 innocent victims have brought us all closer together, and we owe it to them that they continue to do so. So let us all now unite, symbolically at least, under Norway’s Nordic Cross.
Republished by permission. Originally published at The Quietus.