A few days ago, before Utøya and the government building, a friend and I were talking about how two things always go hand in hand: the joy of being alive and the sorrow that things change. That even the brightest future can never entirely make up for the fact that no roads lead back to what went before. To the innocence of childhood. To the first time you fell in love. To the scents of July, the blades of grass tickling your sweaty back as you leap from a boulder and in the next second are enveloped by the ice-cold meltwater of a Norwegian fjord, with your nose and throat filled with the taste of salt and glaciers.
No road back to when you were 17 and, with 10 francs in your pocket, stood by the harbour in Cannes and watched two grown men wearing idiotic white uniforms row a woman ashore from a yacht with her poodle and credit cards, and you realised that the egalitarian society you came from was the exception and not the rule. Or you stood, wide-eyed, in front of another country’s national assembly, which was surrounded by guards carrying automatic weapons – a sight that made you shake your head with a mixture of resignation and self-satisfaction, thinking: “We don’t need that sort of thing where I come from.”
Because I came from a country where fear of others had not found a foothold. A country you could leave for three months, travelling through two coups d’état, a catastrophic famine, a school massacre, two assassinations, a tsunami, and come home to read the newspapers and discover that the only thing new was the crossword puzzle. A country where everyone’s material needs were provided for when oil was discovered in the 70s, and where the political path was established right after the second world war.
The consensus was overwhelming, the debates focused primarily on the best means for achieving the goals that had been agreed upon by everyone from the rightwing to the left. It was a country that thought it was best served by keeping to itself and chose to remain outside the EU, which most small countries would give their right arm to be admitted to. Ideological debates arose only when the reality of the rest of the world began to encroach, when a nation, which up until the 70s had consisted largely of people of the same ethnic and cultural background, had to decide whether their new citizens should be allowed to wear the hijab and build mosques, and when Norwegian soldiers were sent to Afghanistan and Libya. But the Norwegian self-image before 22 July 2011 was that of a virgin – nature untouched by human hands, a nation unsullied by the ills of society.
An exaggeration, of course. A glance at police records is all it takes. And yet. In June I was cycling with the Norwegian prime minister, Jens Stoltenberg, and a mutual friend through the streets of Oslo, setting out for a hike on a forested mountain slope within the city limits of this big yet little city. Two bodyguards followed a few metres behind us, also on bicycles. As we stopped at an intersection for a red light, a car drove up beside the prime minister with the window rolled down. The driver called out his name. “Jens!” The fact that the Norwegian people usually speak of the nation’s top leader and even address him directly by his first name is in the tradition of the egalitarian spirit, and it has long since ceased to surprise me.
“There’s a little boy here who thinks it would be cool to say hello to you,” said the man.
Stoltenberg smiled and shook hands with the little boy sitting in the passenger seat. “Hi, I’m Jens.”
The prime minister wearing his bike helmet. The boy wearing his seatbelt. Both of them stopped for a red light. The bodyguards waited a discreet distance behind us. Smiling. It’s an image of safety and mutual trust. Of the ordinary, idyllic Norwegian society that we all took for granted. Of what we considered normal. How could anything go wrong? We had bike helmets and seatbelts, and we were obeying the traffic rules.
Of course something could go wrong. Something can always go wrong.
In February the Nordic World Ski Championships were held in Oslo. The Norwegian participants performed well, and every evening more than 100,000 enthusiastic Norwegians gathered for the medal ceremonies in downtown Oslo, jubilantly celebrating. On 25 July, 150,000 of Oslo’s 600,000 citizens gathered in grief.
The contrasts were striking. As were the similarities. Both events revealed the unexpected force of emotion in a nation where restraint is a national virtue and “keeping a cool head” is a standard expression, but “keeping a warm heart” is not. Even for those of us who have an automatic aversion to national self-glorification, flags, grandiose words, and expressions of joy or sorrow in large crowds of people, it makes an indelible impression when people demonstrate that they do in fact mean something – these ideas and values of the society we have inherited and more or less take for granted. It’s true that they are symbolic actions, which don’t cost the individual much, but the actions do say something. They say that we refuse to let anyone take away our sense of security and trust. That we refuse to lose this battle against fear.
We have the will.
And yet there is no road back to the way it was before.
Yesterday I heard a man shouting in fury on a train. Before 22 July, my natural response would have been to turn around, maybe even move a little closer. This could be an interesting disagreement that might entice me to take one side or the other, after an objective assessment of the arguments. But now my automatic reaction was to look at my daughter to see whether she was safe and to look for a possible escape route for her. I hope there is reason to believe that this new response will be tempered over time. But I already know that it will never – never – disappear entirely. That date will occur every year, 22 July, and for Norwegians who are alive today, it will be a reminder for the rest of our lives that nothing can be taken for granted, in spite of the bike helmets and seatbelts.
After the bomb went off – an explosion that was felt where I live in Oslo – and reports of the shootings on the island of Utøya began to come in, I asked my daughter whether she was scared. She replied by quoting something I had once said to her: “Yes, but if you’re not scared, you can’t be brave.”
So if there is no road back to how things used to be, to the total, unconscious and naive fearlessness of what was untouched, there is a road forward. To be brave. To keep on as before. To turn the other cheek as we ask: “Was that all you’ve got?” To refuse to allow fear to set limits to the way we continue to build our society.
Jo Nesbø, The Guardian