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22nd July

Monday, September 12, 2011
On Friday the 22nd July an act of terrorism took the lives of 77 people in Norway. 8 people were killed by a bomb in Oslo, but the greatest shock was the terror at Utøya, where 69 people were shot to death, mostly young boys and girls from the ages of 14 to 20 years old. I was participating as a leader in a family camp far from the dramas in Oslo and on Utøya. We were about to start on an overnight hiking trip with 14 children and four leaders. During the evening, news of the shocking numbers of killed struck us like a nightmare. Saturday morning, on the way down the mountain, I stood in front of 14 children and had to explain to them what had happened. It was painful to realize that these children were just like those who were victims on the island of Utøya.

From this moment, something happened in me, and something happened in the soul of the Norwegian people. The first reaction came immediately: State leaders, especially the prime minister Jens Stoltenberg, our king Harald V, and the government stood together with the same message: This act of violence provokes fear and anxiety. We are not going to let our minds and our decisions be driven by this fear. This public signal found its echo among the people. Two days after the killings I was crossing Oslo city by bus. On a wall surrounding a Kindergarten there was a sign: "We must stick together". This is what the Norwegian people have done. We have stuck together, wept together, talked together. 200,000 people met in front of the city hall in Oslo on Sunday the 24th, everyone carrying flowers in their hands.

The open acceptance of our human reactions, and the embracing attitude of fellowship and love have marked Norwegian society and the media. All this is quite different from what has been the reaction to similar events in some other countries. The public debate has often been marked and driven by fear, defense, with restrictions and more intense supervision of the society as result. This may be justified and necessary. Still, there are important questions a society must ask itself: Fear and anxiety or fellowship and solidarity? I believe that our national leaders have managed to stop or at least limit the evil spinning wheel that always follows fear: Anxiety engenders anxiety, violence engenders violence. The open manifestation of a tolerance and peace as the foundation for the political and democratic future has been a true blessing for our nation, and stands as an example for all in time to come.

In an article written in The Telegraph one week after the killings (29th August), Anthony Browne claims that it is time for Norway to 'confront its racist demons (like GB has)', and he explains us that 'this tragedy marks the end of Norway’s innocence'. Yes, innocence is lost. But is this about racist demons? I do believe that it is about something worse. Finn Skårderud, a psychiatrist and well known Norwegian author says in an article in Dagbladet Magasinet on the 30th July that it is time to draw the attention to what’s going on in the lives of children. We see into their rooms and blindly trust the child when they assure us that everything is ok. Reality can sometimes be quite different. Here Skårderud touches a pathology engendered by our modern western society: Isolation. We have become a society that in its concern for welfare risks losing the basis of all human growth: Humanity. For humanity to grow we need both social contact and responsibility. Every human being needs to live in a human context. Without social interaction we become ill in mind. Anyone who enters such a condition will not be able to carry the social obligations that every human is to take, and may risk entering into an illusionary world where fundamental human ethical understandings are lost. This is what happened to Breivik a long time ago.

After 22nd July everybody demand that the government take action to prevent such horrors happening again. But we also, each one of us, are challenged. We all carry a responsibility to fight these pathological patterns. By engagement in our local society, and by confronting hateful attitudes, opinions and actions, we may take responsibility for the society we live in. If we don’t, we ourselves risk becoming responsible for the violence that surrounds us. We may not be able to save the world, but we are called to do what we can. Only through real relations can we create the humanism necessary for our common wellbeing. If we search for demons as Browne tends to do, we may easily spot the diabolic side of internet in this disaster. Breivik entered into a web of people he thought where his allies. He lived in false fellowship with catastrophic outcome. One of his inspiration sources, 'Fjordman', and many with him, will have to consider how their own statements have become part of the tragedy of the 22nd July.

One month after the tragedy another event took place that may be seen as reverse image of what happened in Norway. I'm thinking of the World Youth Days in Madrid. On an airport, almost 2 million young people met to pray and praise. This Catholic meeting based on love, respect and peace shows us that true fellowship is possible, and that it can reach all around the world. At the final Mass a group of about 200 Norwegians participated with black bands tied to their flags in solidarity with the memorial ceremony taking place in Norway the same day. It was a breathtaking celebration, showing the world how Catholics from all over the world commit themselves to the same God, carrying to the world a gospel that holds love, peace and truth as the foundation for our existence.

Flowers still fill the Church gates and the streets of Oslo; roses are often laid down with tears. The Norwegian people are still mourning. In a small, peaceful country, love has been challenged. And with it presents a challenge for the nation, and for each one of us. May God give us the strength to stand up for true human values in our society.

Bror Haavar Simon Nilsen OP


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