Outside Island

Utøya, Norway. From panoramio.com.

It’s the day after the massacre and I’m on the train to Oslo. The trip across the mountains from my hometown, Bergen, will take six hours. “Did you hear the latest from Utøya?” the guy sitting across from me said as I settled into my seat. “What, that there are eighty dead?” He nodded and didn’t say anything more. Utøya [oot-ey-ya] means “Outside Island.” The woman behind me is crying. We just got out of the tunnel from Arna and are heading toward the Voss-Finse arctic plateau.

Though I live in New York, I travel to Norway every summer. Until yesterday, it was a relaxing vacation. I sat on the couch with my friend Monica’s sweet 7-year old daughter, and she showed me her book of flags and chose one to color before dinner. “That one!” she said, going for a nice big star. “Oh, Somalia!” I said, and started to ask her what she knew about it, until Monica called from the kitchen that they don’t watch the news. She’s at peace with sheltering them like this, and it seems fair to me too since her kids are only 5 and 7 years old. Still, this is the Norway I know: not unaware of the world outside its borders, but interested in it only as a hobby or as a story. It’s logical for Norwegians to maintain this attitude because what happens outside Norway rarely affects us. The recession means little to us; Norway has plenty of diversified savings (and oil too). The Sudan, the DRC, and the Middle East are a million miles away. Norway is participating in the Afghanistan and Libya wars through NATO, but they too seem removed.

When I arrived in Oslo at the beginning of the summer, my friend D. picked me up at the railway station. We walked all over the city; she had just moved back to Norway from Berlin and was looking for an apartment. We talked about how having reached what seems like the pinnacle of human achievement—public health care, free higher education, and rich, long, productive lives for most people—Norwegian society has turned inward. As my dad often says when we discuss politics, Norway is a small country. The phrase can be used for praise or condemnation. Norway has a problem assimilating refugees and second-generation immigrants. “Norway is a small country.” Norway supports a Palestinian state. “Norway is a small country.” Norway voted twice against joining the EU and does not use the Euro. “Norway is a small country.”

I didn’t spend my whole youth in Norway; I also went to an international school in Brussels. As opposed to many of my peers, I learned from direct experience that the world outside Norway is both better and worse. When I returned, I was shocked when my classmates said during social studies class that “Pakis smell like garlic,” and the teacher sat back and let me argue against them alone. Their casual racism was breathtaking and totally acceptable (as long as no Pakistanis were around to hear it). All of Norway’s equality and fairness has a side effect, which is a severely conformist culture. Calling something “original” or “special” is a devastating criticism in Norway. The demands for sameness are so high that even I, a native Norwegian, never felt I fit in completely simply because my mother is American. As something of an outsider, what I find intolerable in Norwegian society is that it’s common for people to seriously believe that Norway and Norwegian culture is under existential threat from foreign forces like Islam, refugees, immigrants, the European Union, large multinationals, and environmentalists—it’s normal to fear foreign things.

I see the two problematic sides of Norwegian culture revealed in this tragedy. First, the general reaction that “this sort of thing doesn’t happen in a small country” reveals the mistaken belief that Norway is separate from the rest of the world and therefore safe. Second, I see a shadow of the fear of foreignness common in Norwegian society taken to a pathological extreme with the Utøya massacre. It may look as though Norway is all roses and multiculturalism following the attack, but the perpetrator sprang from a Norwegian background and hid undetected in society for years before committing his crime against left-wing young people.

On Friday afternoon, I went to check my email one last time before peeling a mountain of potatoes for a family dinner party. I started my computer. A bomb in Oslo? I texted D. right away—she works for the Ministry of Trade and Industry. To my gigantic relief, she texted back right away that she was at the hospital with a colleague, having escaped with only her mobile phone. “This is Norway’s Olof Palme moment,” my dad said as he turned on the news. (Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme was shot and killed on the street in Stockholm in 1986.) “Norway has lost its innocence,” the people on TV kept saying amid updates on the death toll. “It’s the worst disaster since the war,” my aunt said as we chewed cake and watched the news.

An old friend in Oslo who heard and felt the blast immediately suspected Muslim terrorists. I thought for a bit longer than was rational that the explosion might have been road workers outside the building hitting the gas pipes. When I woke up this morning and saw the picture of the fair-haired Norwegian man now charged with both the bombing and the shooting, my first stupid thought was relief that the outside world wasn’t responsible, as if that made a difference to the victims. No, what happened was in a sense more sinister: it is indisputable proof that danger and evil have access anywhere. It isn’t rational to think we can shut out danger by ignoring the outside world any more, because Outside Island is in Norway.

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