Norway Attacks Shatter a Nation’s Innocence

By Edmund Sanders for The Los Angeles Times

After a bombing and a shooting rampage that left 93 people dead, some believe the open and trusting attitude that’s been a hallmark of the Norwegian psyche is forever lost. The prime minister tells mourners, ‘Our answer is more democracy, more openness, more humanity, but never naivete.’

Norwegians have always taken pride in their open, trusting society.

It’s a country where you might encounter the prime minister at the grocery store and offer a hug. Many police don’t carry guns and most government buildings are unprotected. Homicide is rare, with only a handful of gun-related deaths a year.

But as Otto Lovik stood Sunday on a muddy lakeshore overlooking Utoya Island and recalled how he rescued about 60 people fleeing Friday’s massacre by a gunman, the 56-year-old prison guard, still shaking from the experience, said his country must change.

“We can’t go back to being open and trusting after this,” said Lovik, who loaded his boat with so many terrified, bleeding victims that he feared it would capsize. “This is the price we must pay.”

As Norway recovers from the initial shock of the shooting rampage and earlier Oslo bombing and begins the mourning process for 93 people who were slain, many predict the nation will never be the same.

“It’s going to have a deep, long-lasting impact,” said Atle Dyregrov, director of Norway’s Center for Crisis Psychology, which has helped other countries recover from disasters such as the 2008 China earthquake and this year’s Japanese tsunami.

“Our innocence is lost,” he said. “We used to think that these things only happened in other countries, not here. Now that illusion is shattered forever.”

He predicted that Norway’s relaxed security policies and reluctance to impinge of civil rights will give way to familiar restrictions already in place in other Western nations, including limited access to government facilities and increased surveillance of suspected extremist groups. He likened the changes to Sweden’s security tightening after the 1986 assassination of Prime Minister Olof Palme.

On Sunday, however, the nation’s focus was on grieving and healing. National flags throughout the capital flew at half staff.

At the ornate Oslo Domkirken cathedral in the heart of the capital, hundreds participated in a national mourning ceremony attended by the prime minister, King Harald, Queen Sonja and some of the young people who escaped the island attack. The suspect, Anders Behring Breivik, is expected to be formally charged Monday.

“A heavy darkness is now clouding our lives,” Bishop Helga Haugland Byfuglien told tearful mourners, urging them to maintain their faith in the goodness of Norway’s people and commitment toward an open society.

In an emotional address, Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg said Norway would not be cowed. “Our answer is more democracy, more openness, more humanity, but never naivete,” he said.

Outside the cathedral, just blocks from the site of the Friday bomb blast that killed at least eight people, well-wishers laid flowers and candles in a makeshift memorial that by nightfall was spreading into the streets.

Waiting in line to enter the cathedral to pay her respects, Oslo resident Christine Arnese, a 47-year-old nurse, stood alone with tears streaming down her cheeks.

“I think this might bring us all closer together,” she said. “It’s important that we keep our country free and open.”

But as the scale of the tragedy sunk in, fears about possible future attacks were already leading some Norwegians to call on the government to bolster security. Some said that police guards who were dispatched to government facilities in the hours after the attacks should become permanent fixtures.

Others called for tougher punishments for terrorists, complaining that estimates Breivik that would face only 21 years in prison if convicted underscores the inadequacy of current law.

“We have to do more to protect ourselves,” said Julie Groseth, who works at a small market overlooking Utoya Island in the community of Hole. She said she worried about copy-cat attacks.

“Maybe that means not being as open to other countries,” she said. “This has showed us how weak Norway is in the war against terrorism. We are not prepared.”

At one of Oslo’s main mosques, many Pakistan-born immigrants expressed apprehension about how the attacks may affect Norwegian society and its tolerance of foreigners.

“When we first heard about the attacks, we all gathered together and prayed,” said mosque official Mohamed Sulieman, who moved to Norway 35 years ago. First they prayed for the victims, he said. Then they prayed that the perpetrators would not turn out to be Islamic extremists. The country has reason enough to fear retribution from overseas extremists: Its troops serve in Afghanistan, where 10 Norwegian soldiers have been killed.

Though he said they were relieved to hear authorities describe Breivik as a home-grown terrorist who acted alone, some remain concerned that any tighter security rules or rising public anxieties might nevertheless trigger a backlash against them. At times in the past, the increasing presence of immigrants and foreigners in Norway has come under criticism from conservative parties.

“We’ve never really had a problem before,” Sulieman said. “But still, it’s in the back of our minds.”

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  1. July 24th, 2011

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