Breivik trial: Myth of Norway’s lost innocence
16 April 2012
In the run-up to the opening of the trial of extreme right terrorist Anders Breivik, which is set to begin in Oslo on 16 April, a Norwegian journalist contests the myth of Norway’s “lost innocence”, which has been a feature of international press coverage of the aftermath of the Utøya massacre.
Well before the psychiatrists arrived in Anders Behring Breivik’s cell, our national psyche was being examined by commentators in the international press, who, with only a few exceptions, concluded that Norway’s innocence would now be forever lost. There would be no restoration of the Shangri-La which was attacked on 22 July.
Analysis of European and American newspaper coverage of the attack reveals that no conclusion was more pervasive than the assertion of “lost innocence”. The front page of the 24 July edition of Le Monde was a typical illustration of this trend: “Norway has lost its innocence”.
By way of introduction to its editorial, the British Sunday paper The Observer remarked that “Norway is accustomed to seeing itself lauded as the healthiest, wealthiest and most peaceful country in the world.” It was this candour and touchingly egalitarian openness that was supposed to have been destroyed.
But it would be erroneous to conclude that these assertions offered anything more than the illusion of an external perspective on Norway. In fact the reports were self-diagnosis disguised as foreign analysis and the expression “see themselves as” carried more weight than you might expect. The real focus of the pieces written by international journalists, who all adopted the same working method, was the mirror of our own self-perceptions: and the pre-conceptions about Norway they conveyed were in fact our own.
When journalists go to work in a country where they do not understand the language or the culture, they typically make use of the invaluable services of fixer interpreters, whose impact on global public opinion is invariably underestimated. They are the ones who, while remaining largely invisible, offer clear guidance as to how conflicts should be interpreted, as well as which sources should be chosen and which words used.
When Norway, which is a country that rarely makes headlines, became the theatre of a global event, the international press adopted the following method: world renowned writers like Jan Kjærstad, Anne Holt and Jostein Gaarder were drafted in to serve as cultural interpreters within the framework of interviews, while Jo Nesbø was invited to write an article which was published in the major newspapers of several continents.
In the New York Times and Folha do Brasil, in El Mundo in Spain, Jyllands-Posten in Denmark and Spiegel in Germany, Nesbø explained how the period before the 22 July was like a “foreign country”, where “political consensus was overwhelming” and debates focused primarily on how to achieve goals that everyone, both on the right and the left, had already agreed on. He further remarked that until 22 July, 2011, “we thought of our country as a virgin – unsullied by the ills of society.”
Jan Kjærstad took The Observer journalist to Bølgen & Moi [one of the best restaurants in Oslo], where he showed him the table the crown prince usually chooses. Then, as though they were in a scene from a novel, a door opened and Prince Haakon Magnus came in and began to chat with Kjærstad and the British reporter, who couldn’t believe his eyes.
I came across just one article marked by opposition to the Norwegian sentiment that Breivik had destroyed our society. Writing in The Guardian, journalist Simon Jenkins pointed out, as early as Tuesday 26 July, that “the Norwegian tragedy is just that, a tragedy. It does not signify anything and should not be forced to do so... No, Anders Breivik does not tell us anything about Norway... He tells us nothing about terrorism or gun control or policing or political holiday camps… He is plainly very sick”.
A self-imposed veil
Jenkins was shocked by the drive to situate Breivik in a political context. As the attacks were the work of a mentally ill perpetrator, he argued that David Cameron was wrong to “leap forward and order ‘a review of the far right’, or of the far anything.”
Today the reporters have come back to Norway to observe how the judicial system will will deal with the man who destroyed our virgin paradise. Some of them will have perhaps read Martin Sandbu, a Norwegian economics columnist who writes for the conservative daily the Financial Times. Two days after Utøya, Sandbu announced that “Norway lost its innocence a long time ago”, and added that our supposedly blissful distance from the harsher side of world politics was a “self-imposed veil”, created by politicians who want to hide the fact that Norway, which is one of the founders of NATO and a stalwart ally of the United States, is not unacquainted with violence.
He continued: “There is a widespread perception, for instance, that Nordic countries are more tolerant of immigrants than others in northern Europe. Yet their governments may simply have been better at camouflaging hostility.” In short, what was destroyed on 22 July, 2011, was perhaps not paradise, but simply a mirror that we had created for ourselves.