Utøya and the love paradigm

words survive a 9mm Glock

love is stronger than a 500 kg bomb

holding hands is more powerful than cocking a gun

a small kiss is more important than 1500 pages of hate

a we is so much more than a me

This is the beginning of a poem by the Norwegian writer Frode Grytten, a former journalist who left reporting behind to write something, everything, else – short stories, Nordic crime, art books and poetry. He is one of the most celebrated Norwegian authors of late, and deservedly so.

The poem was printed by the Norwegian daily Klassekampen – a socialist-leaning newspaper for which I once worked – as the daily editorial yesterday, July 21st 2012, to commemorate what happened in Norway a year ago.

As is often the case with coverage and treatment in writing of atrocities, some the most poignant journalistic coverage of the Oslo bombing and Utøya shootings on July 22nd came at the hands of artists. Authors, poets, singers and even comedians took centre stage as editors and journalists stood back and allowed another kind of aesthetic to try its hand at describing what was, to Norwegians and perhaps to many people in the rest of the world, so horrible that ordinary rules of engagement for journalism didn’t really manage to do it justice. Journalists do occasionally venture into covering emotion, at least in longform story journalism, but even the most respected journalist doesn’t have quite the integrity and perceived authenticity of a «real» writer.

I am still a journalist, and I don’t aim to «do justice» to what happened now. But I have long felt that I should write something about what happened. About what it means for me. Just to get it out of my system, perhaps. Today, exactly one year after it happened, I am back in Norway. It’s time.

It’s not going to rock anyone’s world, I’m sure. I don’t even know if anyone will bother to slog through it, and it’s no loss if you don’t. But I figure it’s time.

I left my regular old life in Norway a week after it all happened. The week I had planned to used to shore things up and make things ship-shape was spent in a kind of daze, going through the motions of journalism at work, churning out stories on peripheral concerns connected to the shooter/bomber’s actions – where did he get the guns, are there any rules in any part of the world that would have made it possible to prevent a stockpiling of fertilizer the way he did it, and so on – and dealing with the tiny trauma of what in my case just could have happened.

He could have killed my friends who work for the government. He could have killed friends and acquaintances who are members of the Labour youth. He could have killed a journalist colleague if I had made the decision to send a journalist to the island that day in order to catch the prime minister with a pointed question (I knew exactly what question I wanted answered – a question pertaining to the excellent Saturday front page which seemed a sure hit when I left work Friday afternoon before things started happening) when he arrived the following morning. His bomb could have killed me if I had gone shopping instead of heading straight home, if my timing had been very unlucky and if I went to this one shop I sometimes go, if I used the route I sometimes use (or used to use, it’s probably cordoned off now). And so on.

But he didn’t. He killed children and grownups I didn’t know. Some I had met, some I had interviewed, some who followed me on Twitter, some who knew friends of friends. But I was lucky. My friends were lucky. They had just turned the corner when the bomb exploded, they had left work early, they were getting too old for Utøya or at least old enough to go into town to get a beer on a Friday evening or old enough and lucky enough to manage the swim to the mainland and to safety. Luck. Chance. Life.

So I went off to study politics. To make sense of politics in an increasingly multicultural society, a world where conversations and identifications take place in an ever larger grid, where individuals in most any part of the technologized world seemingly can find their own techno-diasporized meta-communities, to coin what might be an unnecessary neologism. You can peer into the computer and find a «daily me» that is far removed from what you find and get confirmed or imprinted upon you in your immediate surroundings. For better, if you are a gay kid in some place where that is far from okay, or a model train enthusiast in a town with no other train enthusiasts, or the only liberal or the only conservative in wherever you might be. Or for worse. If you are a solitary fantasist hurtling off into some paranoid mindset of your own making and finding it to reverberate with and be nourished the similarly paranoid theories of others, as is apparently the case with the killer in question here, no matter if he’s found sane or insane.

I had planned to do so for quite some time, but the timing made it all seem much more immediately relevant than I had ever imagined. In the big picture, Norway is a tiny country and the July 22nd killings may seem a drop in an ocean of international tragedy. I have to keep telling myself that: This is not that unique, every day a lot of lives are ended by similar means, in some parts of the world all seems to be endless war, much of it perpetrated by groups and movements and ideologies and even national armies with way much more coherence and consistency than what drove the lone wolf who was on the loose in Norway.

Knowing this, how I felt that weekend when it seemed the rains over Oslo would never end and that the police would never get to the island to stop what was going on out there and save our children – because that was what it felt like, that it was my children, my siblings and almost me out there being massacred in the rain, knowing this helps me know, or at least approximate a guess as to how it might feel to know, how people feel when their children die at the hands of what is or at least, at that time, becomes, an enemy. In the Middle East, in Africa, in any part of the world. No matter if the explosives or bullets killing them are Israeli or Palestinian or Hutu or Tutsi or of American or Russian or Chinese or Norwegian make, or who is shooting or setting them off. When people kill your children and your friends, when someone makes innocents collateral damage in some ideological struggle or just for the sake of pure deranged violence, it does something to you. This is a very obvious point, but as far as I can tell it is impossible to envisage the emotional impact of it with any kind of accuracy until you experience it on your own.

I write this knowing that I haven’t really experienced «it». My experience is just an echo of the shell-shock of real violent loss, of really being attacked. My country and a way of life with which I strongly identify was attacked, to be sure, but my closest friends live and prosper today, the killer was a single man acting alone, he was caught and is being prosecuted, and he is no longer much of a threat to anyone. The terrible loss of the people who were physically hurt and who lost friends and loved ones is something I only share indirectly. Although my emotions are real and I cried like a child in the aftermath, what I had to cope with is immeasurably easier to deal with than what I imagine is the case for those who lost someone.

I like to see myself as a rational and reasonable individual, able to weigh pros and cons against one another without being caught up in a groundswell of emotion and just careening off without considering where I am going.

Still, even my little slice of fear and grief and shock, as sheltered and removed from the actual horror of real loss of someone really close as it is, pushes me a bit in the direction of a huge irrational anger directed at anyone who undoubtedly is or who arguably could be said to be to blame, at the killer and at the hate-fomenters who perpetuate the same kind of uninformed fear and resentment that seems to have fuelled his fantasies. I have made my peace with my anger, looked at it and analyzed it and perhaps understood it. But even now, even a year later, I can feel it slithering around somewhere deep inside me time and again, when someone says or does something to remind me of the blind idiocy and hate some people carry within themselves.

I try very hard to understand these people, to allay their fears and to see if there are ways to bring them over to the good we. I try to see if there are legitimate concerns tangled up with pointless prejudice, easy fixes and pandering to the very lowest feelings available to mankind. But it is hard sometimes. Hard not to lose one’s cool, even though me getting knee-jerk angry about casual bigotry probably is less conducive of a solution than keeping a level head and going about things in a calm, collected manner.

Norway has been inundated with rose and heart imagery in the year since the killings in Oslo and at Utøya island.

«a we is so much more than a me». To me, the lines about how violence is easier than love in Grytten’s poem are generally reminiscent of, of all things, a line from the Robert Rodriguez movie «Desperado», «It’s easier to pull the trigger than to play the guitar», a line that on the one hand is played for campy emotionalism but at the other hand actually manages to pull of being genuinely poignant in a movie that is otherwise most remarkable for gratuitous, if beautifully filmed violence and Salma Hayek/Antonio Banderas sex scenes. The «we» line, however, reminds me of Jürgen Habermas. His work on «we-perspectives» and solidarity is the closest I’ve gotten to something capturing the feeling that apparently permeated the Norwegian public in the days and weeks after the killings.

I watched most of it from the outside, having left the country, so I might have missed some nuance. But to me, it seems like there were several «wes» around, and there still are. There are the most immediately targeted groups, the Labour Youth and the families of the individuals that were killed, there are the groups that sprung up to represent them and some survivors who have apparently rebelled a bit against having the group speak for them. There is the big we of Norwegians as a whole, and against that the consideration that this we might also be something stifling, that showing anger or individuality is somehow not kosher in Norwegian society. Or that the big we might be hiding some subgroups that need to be called out. There is the problem faced by the Progress Party, the Norwegian rightwing party who got a rather unique PR challenge in the fact that the killer used to be an active member of their Oslo party (although he exaggerated his influence and claims he left because they wouldn’t listen to his alarmist views on immigration) and that some of the rhetoric in the texts he e-mailed to hundreds of various people, journalists, celebrities, Progress Party members and others, echoes that of an op-ed signed by the current leader of the Oslo Party pretty closely: The allegation that the Norwegian Labour Party is somehow involved in a traitorous attack on Norwegian culture through their ostensibly dangerously liberal immigration and integration policy. The party clamped down on communications quickly after the bombings. Not quickly enough to stop their immigration spokesman from making a fool of himself online, but they handled it deftly enough that I choose to think that they would have shown restraint even if the killer had turned out to be a brown man claiming to act on behalf of Muslims everywhere instead of a white man claiming to act on behalf of Christians.

There are a lot of small wes. The Norwegian we, even the most inclusive of the Norwegian wes, is a tiny we in the sea of humanity. But the we that was on display after what happened, the we that is perhaps not quite real and perhaps not quite what it seems, but is an ideal we can strive to achieve, is perhaps most accurately portrayed as an aspiration to being a subgroup of a we including all of humanity as a community united in love and solidarity.

It might sound naive.

Of course love doesn’t literally stop a bullet.

But a big we connects the mes of the individual members. Who am I? I am a member of this we. What does this say about me? What duties do I have, which rights? Who are the others? How shall I treat them? If we all are members of the same we, doesn’t this mean that I should think twice before hurting or insulting or humiliating you? And that I should expect the same consideration from you?

It seems that the killer didn’t know quite who he was. That he shopped around for identities, search for a self, and somehow cobbled together something from alienation and fears and fantasies found in the nooks and crannies of the internet.

The victims, on the other hand, mostly knew who they were, but were killed mostly due to a fragment of their total identity – because they happened to be members of the Labour Youth, because they happened to work for the Norwegian government, or, in some cases, just because they walked past the wrong building at the wrong time. Put in the wrong them by a disparate individual claiming to speak for an us that might have been imagined, and that at the very least has distanced itself from him afterward.

There is no quick fix in politics, no way to do away with conflicts permanently. I think there will be conflict at least as long as there is humanity. But we need something to aspire to.

I think the love paradigm is a better something than most. If there is anything Norway can contribute to international politics, let this be it.

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