Three years ago, Norwegian Ambassador Wegger Christian Strommen proudly told us that his tolerant country, with its tiny Muslim population, had largely escaped the wave of xenophobia triggered by al-Qaeda terrorist attacks and persistent rantings by right-wing extremists about the “Islamic population bomb” allegedly threatening Europe.
“Out of 4.5 million people in Norway, only 120,000 to 130,000 are Muslim, and the first ones who came — Pakistanis and Moroccans — have settled in well,” said Strommen. “They’ve learned the language, thanks to free courses in Norwegian, and after awhile, they are no longer considered immigrants” (also see “Immigration and Islam: The European Dilemma” in the June 2008 issue of The Washington Diplomat).
On July 22, however, Norway lost its innocence.
That day, its capital city — whose very name is synonymous with Middle East peace — suddenly became a scene of unimaginable carnage, when 32-year-old Anders Behring Breivik car-bombed a downtown government ministry, killing eight people and wounding several others. Hours later, disguised as a policeman on nearby Utøya island, Breivik methodically gunned down 69 people, many of them teenagers, at a summer camp run by the Norwegian Labor Party. In a subsequent statement to police, Breivik said his actions were “atrocious” but that they were part of a “necessary” violent crusade against “cultural Marxism” and the “Islamization of Europe.”
Strommen was on vacation in Norway at the time and learned about the attack in an urgent phone call from Washington.
“Like everybody else, my first thought was that this was a kind of London or Madrid situation, in the center of the city. I thought it was al-Qaeda. But after starting to hear reports from the island, that made me worried. I thought to myself: this is likely to be homegrown,” he told The Diplomat.
“That night, I tried to get some sleep but didn’t get much. The latest reports were six hours ahead of here, and said there might have been 10 or 15 people killed. Just as I went to bed, disturbing blogs were coming out saying there were many, many more dead. But it wasn’t until I got up in the middle of the night that I learned the whole story.”
The ambassador’s godson, 20-year-old Knut Frydenlund, survived the attack by swimming from Utøya to the mainland, and ducking into the water every time he saw the shooter aiming at him during his 90-minute rampage. And the nephew of one of Strommen’s local embassy employees is still in an Oslo hospital, recovering from gunshot wounds.
“We haven’t seen anything like this in Norway since World War II,” Strommen told us. “You’d have to go back to my parent’s generation, and that would have been in wartime. This is peacetime. This is something our legal system has never encountered. But our chief prosecutor has decided that Breivik will be brought to justice over every single murder — all 77 of them individually.”
At the entrance to the Royal Norwegian Embassy on 34th Street, just off Massachusetts Avenue, visitors are greeted by portraits of King Harald V and Queen Sonja, as well as a table on which sits a book of condolences already signed by President Barack Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and dozens of ambassadors, members of Congress and other dignitaries.
But the embassy itself doesn’t seem very fortress-like in the aftermath of the Oslo attack — perhaps a consequence of the fact that this was an act of homegrown terrorism and not the work of Islamic jihadists.
“It’s hard to prepare for these kinds of things. You will always have to review your security situation,” Strommen said, declining to get more specific for obvious reasons. “We do that in every diplomatic post.”
By coincidence, the ambassador said that in the 1980s, he briefly met the killer’s father, Jens David Breivik, a fellow diplomat who had worked at Norwegian missions in London and Paris. Strommen, 52, has also experienced war firsthand, serving in Yugoslavia during various Balkan crises and in Israel for a three-year period that coincided with the Gulf War.
But nothing could have prepared the ambassador for similar scenes of destruction in downtown Oslo, which he toured shortly after Breivik’s car bomb exploded just outside the office of Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg and other government buildings.
In the immediate aftermath of the explosion, suspicions quickly fell on Islamic-inspired terrorists. The fact that the largest massacre committed by a lone gunman in modern history was at the hands of a blond, Christian native prompted deep soul-searching among stunned Norwegians — Strommen among them.
“I had always thought there could be violence coming from the extreme right, but to be honest, something of this magnitude never crossed my mind,” Strommen said. “I remember Timothy McVeigh and the  Oklahoma City bombings, and this brings back those memories. I’m sure there are some individuals who would agree with [Breivik]. The extreme thing here is his violence and hatred of the Labor Party — and massacring children because of his hatred.”
He added, however, that his countrymen have come together, not in hate but to heal, and that the response from around the world has been both overwhelming and heartwarming. “There was an outpouring of sympathy and solidarity. This individual will be brought to justice, but according to the law. He will be treated like a criminal and will be sentenced. But there’s very little talk of hatred and revenge.”
There is, however, some ridicule of Norway for its luxurious prisons and lenient jail sentences — capital punishment hasn’t been an option since 1905 — and the fact that its policemen by law must get authorization from their chief to gain access to a firearm.
Three days after the massacre, Michael Schwirtz of the New York Times suggested that Breivik “most likely shot more rounds in the hourlong rampage than most Norwegian officers typically fire in a career.”
And Foreign Policy wryly noted in “The Super-Lux Super Max” that Norway’s most secure penitentiary, Halden Prison, “looks more like a posh sleepaway camp,” with flat-screen TVs in inmates’ rooms, private cells with mini-fridges and even personal trainers and a state-of-the-art gym to help inmates with their daily exercise routines. In response to the images of jailbirds sipping coffee and scaling a rock-climbing wall, one online commentator wrote, “Does anyone else feel a little tempted to go commit some crimes in Norway?”
The article, like many other publications, also noted that the longest jail term allowed in Norway is 21 years — prompting outrage around the world that a killer like Breivik could see the light of day again. Actually, says Strommen, the maximum jail term is 30 years, not 21 — and in practice, it could be much more than that.
“We have in Norway what you Americans would call administrative detention,” he said, explaining that if a prisoner is deemed to still be a threat, his sentence can be extended every five years, indefinitely. “You can be locked up for the rest of your life in Norway, but it’s an administrative decision for some people that are mentally ill — and for some who are not. We have rules whereby dangerous people can be held in prison even after they’ve served their sentence, so there’s been a huge misunderstanding.”
Moreover, ridicule over Norway’s supposedly lax prisons and general lack of firearms glosses over the fact that the country is one of the safest on the planet — with crime rates that other nations can only dream about. In 2009, Norway recorded 29 murders — one of the lowest murder rates in the world — compared to 99 that year in Prince George’s County, Md., alone. Throughout the United States, more than 15,000 people die in homicides each year.
In the wake of the disaster, some pro-gun advocates in the United States also took aim at Norway’s stringent firearms restrictions, arguing that they failed to prevent Breivik from obtaining a gun license and unleashing his killing spree. At the same time, however, while the 77 deaths in Norway made worldwide news, in the United States, where gun laws are far looser, 80 people on average are killed by guns each day.
In addition, recidivism rates are markedly lower in Norway than in the United States, which has less than 5 percent of the world’s population but holds a quarter of the world’s prisoners. Also, the guiding principle at places like Norway’s Halden Prison is to rehabilitate and eventually reintegrate inmates back into society (incidentally, only those who demonstrate progress enjoy perks such as the rock-climbing wall).
And although crime rates have slightly inched up over the years, many Norwegians rarely lock their doors while top-level officials often walk the streets without any security detail.
Norway’s geographic isolation and its tremendous energy wealth have also created a prosperous — and highly principled — society. Per-capita GDP stands at more than $53,000, the social safety net is strong, unemployment is low, and tolerance is high.
But Breivik’s ruthlessly calculated attack has shattered that sense of security. Yet despite the current debate over whether Norway has realistically confronted 21st-century dangers, there are also calls for restraint to preserve the country’s egalitarian and — up until this one horrific moment — peaceful way of life.
“It’s absolutely possible to have an open, democratic, inclusive society, and at the same time have security measures and not be naïve,” Prime Minister Stoltenberg told reporters in Oslo a week after the massacre. “I think what we have seen is that there is going to be one Norway before and one Norway after July 22…. But I hope and also believe that the Norway we will see after will be more open, a more tolerant society than what we had before.”
That tolerance is exactly why immigrants have flocked to Norway, with its liberal asylum rules and abundance of jobs. But their presence is often exaggerated by radical right-wingers such as Breivik. Out of a population of 4.9 million, about 11 percent, or 550,000, are immigrants — with half of those estimated to be white Europeans such as Poles and Swedes. In all, there are 150,000 or so Muslims in Norway.
In fact, 90 percent of the country’s people are still ethnic Norwegians. Strommen grew up in Larvik, a town of 10,000 people where, he recalls, “there was one Jewish family and two Catholics” — and not a single Muslim.
Yet slowly but surely, Norway’s population is getting darker and more diverse as the country — hoping to boost its birth rate through financial incentives — welcomes immigrants from around the world, many of them poor, uneducated refugees. The largest ethnic groups in Norway today are Poles, Swedes, Pakistanis, Iraqis, Somalis, Germans, Vietnamese, Danes, Iranians and Turks.
“We’re an aging society, and we certainly need children. That’s why women get one full year off with pay if they have children,” said Strommen. “We almost have replacement rate, which is 2.1, but we’re not quite there yet.”
The country’s immigrant numbers have nearly tripled between 1995 and 2010. Islam is now Norway’s second largest religion and in some districts of Oslo, Muslim immigrants far outnumber native Norwegians — a trend that’s difficult to ignore in such a homogenous white society.
For Breivik, this signaled an apocalyptic war between Muslims and Europe. His 1,500-page manifesto is a convoluted diatribe against the failure of politicians to defend Norway against an Islamic onslaught, peppered with references to the Unabomber, the Knights Templar, American “counterjihad” online activists, multiculturalism and even the Eurovision song contest.
“If you read his manifesto, there are only one or two elements to it. He really doesn’t have a coherent ideology,” Strommen said of Breivik’s twisted beliefs. “It’s confusing, and he mixes all kinds of things into it. He’s Islamophobic. It’s hard to say if he’s anti-Semitic, but where there’s racism, there’s anti-Semitism.”
Most of Norway’s Muslims today are Pakistanis and Moroccans who came as guest workers years ago; there are also more recent Muslim refugees from Iraq, Iran and Somalia, as well as 1,300 or so Jews, nearly all of them in Oslo. Days after the slaughter, up to 250,000 people gathered in the streets of the capital city to grieve and remember the victims.
“It was really impressive to see the response in the Norwegian Muslim community,” said Strommen. “None of them came out with the idea that this is the fault of the Christians. They see it as a terrible act of violence, committed by someone with ridiculous, disgusting ideas.”
The killings in Oslo and Utøya have also reverberated beyond Norway’s borders, sparking condemnation of far-right parties in Sweden, Italy and France that have gained a foothold by railing against immigration and the perceived threat of Islam eroding traditional European values.
As New York Times correspondent Nicholas Kulish noted, Breivik’s rambling manifesto, while urging violence, also contains some passages that echo the concerns of mainstream political leaders about preserving national identity.
“So much of what he wrote could have been said by any right-wing politician,” Daniel Cohn-Bendit, co-chairman of the Green bloc in the European Parliament, told the newspaper. “A lot of arguments about immigrants and Islamic fundamentalism will now be much easier to question and to push back.”
In fact, far-right groups ranging from Italy’s anti-immigrant Northern League to France’s National Front moved quickly in the days following the massacre to distance themselves from Breivik and his rants. And in Germany — birthplace of Nazism — the Social Democrats have renewed calls to ban the far-right National Democratic Party.
Breivik himself had at one point been a member of the Progress Party, a right-wing, stridently anti-immigrant group in Norway, but he quit in 2006, apparently out of disillusionment that the party was moderating its views.
Asked if the bloodshed would change his country in the long term, Strommen appeared unflinching.
“Norway will remain an open and inclusive society,” he declared. “Such an event will change us, but we will be recognizable. We won’t back down on the rule of law. And we won’t back down on democracy and human rights. We will not. We will keep up the standards we had before this, and put society to the test.”
About the Authors
Larry Luxner is news editor of The Washington Diplomat.