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What New Zealand can learn from Norway's response to their terror attack

Flowers and candles on the mainland in memory of the victims of Norway’s July 22 killings on Utøya island, at left. Photo/Getty Images

Kate Evans asked Norwegians connected with that country’s 2011 terror attacks for any advice they may have for New Zealand as we navigate the aftermath of the Christchurch mosque shootings.

On Friday, July 22, 2011, Lisbeth Røyneland was in her Oslo apartment “doing homely things” with her older daughter – watching the Tour de France on TV, and enjoying the end of her summer holidays.

“There was this big sound; it sounded like it was thunder outside. So we rushed to the window, but the sky was clear, so I didn’t think much more about it.”

Soon after, the cycling was interrupted by an emergency broadcast – a car bomb had gone off outside a government building in the centre of Norway’s capital city of Oslo.

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Røyneland’s 18-year-old younger daughter, Synne, was away at a summer camp run by AUF, the youth wing of the Norwegian Labour Party. The camp was held every year on Utøya, an island in a lake a short drive from Oslo, but it was Synne’s first time.

Røyneland worried her daughter might already be on her way back to the city, in harm’s way. She texted her, and Synne replied: she was fine, she was still on the island, safe.

Then the news reports of shootings on Utøya started coming in. “Of course, I tried to get hold of Synne, but this time, she didn’t reply,” Røyneland says.

Utøya victim Synne Røyneland with her mother, Lisbeth Røyneland. Photo/Supplied

The family were told to go to a hotel near the island. Røyneland raced there along with Synne’s father and sister. They rushed into a room crowded with police, volunteers, politicians and hundreds of other families looking for loved ones. Some young survivors sat shivering in towels, their feet bloodied – they had escaped the shooting by swimming across the lake. The Røynelands searched the crowd for Synne.

They didn’t find her. There was a noticeboard where the names of survivors had been listed, and they read them over and over, looking for her name. They learnt afterwards that the lists were never updated. “It was really chaos, that first day.”

The family stayed in the hotel for three days, as details began to emerge about what had happened. Police briefed the families before every press conference.

Anders Behring Breivik, a 32-year-old Norwegian right-wing extremist, had planted a home-made fertiliser bomb outside Oslo’s government quarter on the afternoon of July 22. The explosion killed eight people. Ninety minutes later, he took a ferry to Utøya. He was dressed in a police uniform and told people he had been sent there following the Oslo attack.

Synne Røyneland. Photo/Supplied

As a “bonus”, he had planned to film and decapitate Gro Harlem Brundtland, a former Labour prime minister, who was a guest on the island that day. She was an object of hate on the far right in Norway for being a feminist and for “opening the gates of immigration”. He arrived too late – she had already left – so he turned his attention to his main target, the young campers. He aimed to kill future left-wing political leaders from the party he held responsible for Muslim immigration and multiculturalism.

Over the next hour, he killed 69 more people. “You will all die today, Marxists!” he shouted.

The youngest victim, New Zealand-born Sharidyn Svebakk-Bøhn, was just 14. The remaining 495 people on the island survived, although 33 were injured.

Lisbeth Røyneland did not find out for sure that her daughter was dead until Wednesday, five days after the attack. A commission of inquiry later found that police had made a string of mistakes during the shooting, delaying their arrival on the island. “The police were too late, and many of the young people should have been alive today, so there’s a lot of anger because of that.”

In their grief, the families set up a national support group for victims of what became known as the 22 July attacks, to avoid giving notoriety to Breivik. Røyneland is now the leader of the group, which has 1780 members and 15 regional groups the length of Norway.

Hearing about the mosque attacks in Christchurch brought back difficult memories, she says.

“It was really like a fist in my stomach, when I woke up that Friday morning and heard the news. There were so many similarities, it was really hard. I’m still thinking about what those poor people are going through.”

There are similarities: the lone gunman with extreme right-wing views, the anti-immigration manifesto, the internet radicalisation. Norway, like New Zealand, had thought itself a safe and peaceful society, insulated from terror.

In both countries, the population responded to atrocity with unity and love. In New Zealand, heaps of flowers were left outside mosques; in Norway, 100,000 people marched in the streets clutching roses.

But for us, here, what happens next? Eight years on from their devastating terror attack, Norwegians are perhaps uniquely placed to shed light on the potential pitfalls and possibilities as the dust settles on the massacre in Christchurch. What did Norway do well in the wake of July 22, and what was missed? What can we learn from their mistakes – and successes?

Norwegians respond in the wake of the two 2011 attacks that left 77 people dead. Photo/Getty Images

Still struggling

Norway’s experience has shown the importance of providing proper mental healthcare for survivors and victims’ families, Røyneland says.

“A week or so after the attack, everyone received a phone call offering psychiatric help. Some said yes, and some didn’t answer, because maybe they were too young or they just thought, ‘Leave me alone.’ And they never did get that phone call again.

“That was the first mistake, I think.”

Months later, when people realised they did need help, it wasn’t always available, Røyneland says. There was also a shortage of psychiatrists with trauma experience, she says – “we learnt later that our military has a lot of trained psychologists in that field, so perhaps yours does, too – I would recommend a co-operation with them”.

The support group recently surveyed members about their mental health. Forty per cent of survivors and bereaved families said they either have not had the healthcare they need or they don’t know if they have. Thirty per cent said they were “struggling” emotionally, and 85% of victims’ families said they were affected in everyday life by their losses and what they had experienced.

Norwegians respond in the wake of the two 2011 attacks that left 77 people dead. Photo/Getty Images

Twelve per cent of the parents who lost children have been unable to return to work – they are now on social welfare or full-time sick leave.

“You have to remember that people need support for many, many years,” Røyneland says. “This doesn’t go away in six months or a year. In Norway, people are still struggling after eight years. Some of the young people went abroad to study, and when they came home, they suddenly realised they had pushed everything away and now they need help.”

The peer-to-peer support provided by the 22 July support group itself has been incredibly helpful, she says. The group organises gatherings for people in similar situations, trying to cope with the same stuff – connecting young survivors from the island, bereaved parents or those who lost a sibling. “We see that the people who turn up to these kinds of events – it could be just a pizza and a chat – they are doing better, because they are talking about it.”

Another longitudinal study of young survivors found that most had experienced “post-traumatic growth” – positive changes, including a stronger bond with family, heightened compassion and greater maturity. Some have been inspired to pursue careers in psychology, security or the emergency services, says Røyneland.

But she says every time the story is back in the news, there’s a risk of retraumatising victims. “You, too, have a live terrorist. That means there will be a court case, and there will be a lot of writing in the newspaper for years to come.”

Norwegians respond in the wake of the two 2011 attacks that left 77 people dead. Photo/Getty Images

Triumph of democracy

In Norway, the families had dreaded the trial, Røyneland says. “We thought it would be a circus, and we made buttons that said, ‘No interviews, please’, because we were afraid of being hassled by the media. But in the end, we felt it was done really respectfully.”

The area outside the courtroom was divided into two zones, with one part for the press and for those who were willing to talk to them, and the other for the families who just wanted to be left alone. “That worked really well,” Røyneland says.

Though the press coverage was mainly responsible, she says, there were some reckless exceptions. When Breivik made a Nazi-style salute in court, the picture was everywhere – and in general, there was too much focus on the defendant in the trial’s early weeks, she says. Seeing his face on the front page of all the newspapers was too much. “Many people – me included – turned the newspapers around on the newsstand because it was sickening to look at.”

The prosecutors consulted the support group, and instead of showing photos of the bodies as evidence, they used a large doll to point out the locations of the bullet wounds and identify the cause of death. Each of the 77 victims was treated as an individual, and celebrated for who they were in life. A short biography about each one, written by their family, was read aloud in the courtroom by the lawyers.

“Although Synne was only 18, she left deep traces,” began the Røynelands’ tribute. “She had a way with words, and she was an artistic soul with a subtle sense of humour.”

Røyneland was in the courtroom to hear it. “I was sitting just 5m from the terrorist, but in a strange way he just disappeared. What he did and what he said was so far out that I thought of him as just nothing.”

Tore Bjørgo. Photo/Supplied

The trial was extremely important for Norway as a whole, says Tore Bjørgo, director of the Norwegian Centre for Research on Extremism: The Extreme Right, Hate Crime and Political Violence (C-REX).

“It was a kind of victory for democracy, for the rule of law: the police followed the law to the letter, the terrorist got all the rights he should have and people felt that justice was done in a very fair and transparent way.”

The public followed the trial closely, he says, and it became a form of national catharsis. When, from the dock, Breivik claimed a Norwegian folk song, Children of the Rainbow, was used to brainwash children about multiculturalism, thousands of people marched outside the courthouse in the pouring rain, singing the song “as though they were in dialogue with the terrorist and triumphing over him”, Bjørgo says.

The main argument of the trial was whether Breivik was sane – and therefore could be found guilty of the murders. The first psychiatric assessment of him concluded he was insane, but Bjørgo believes that was because the psychiatrists had a poor understanding of right-wing extremism.

“When he said, for example, that he was ‘in the middle of a civil war’, they misinterpreted that as a sign of paranoid delusion. But that’s a mainstream idea among some of these right-wing militants.

“When he said he believed he was under surveillance, they said, ‘Oh, obviously he’s paranoid and deluded.’ But actually he was more reality-minded than the psychiatrists, because he should have been under surveillance.”

The judges ordered a second assessment, and Breivik was found to be sane, after all, although suffering from a personality disorder.

Norwegians respond in the wake of the two 2011 attacks that left 77 people dead. Photo/Getty Images

Strike down the ugly

Bjørgo has spent 30 years studying extremism, particularly from the political right. C-REX, the research centre he leads, was itself set up by the Norwegian Government in response to the 2011 attacks, when it was realised how little was known about this kind of extremism in the country. It’s something New Zealand should consider, too, he suggests, perhaps in collaboration with Australia – “you have a joint problem”.

Unfortunately, he says, extreme right-wing views are now more prominent in Norway than they were before 2011.

“One of the things that has been criticised about the aftermath of the attacks was that, in the emphasis on unity and looking forward, and letting the guilt rest with the perpetrator, there hasn’t really been a settling of scores with those who supported Breivik and his views.”

In the months and years after July 22, right-wing trolls bombarded survivors from Utøya with verbal abuse, threats and harassment. “It was really ugly stuff. There’s such a total lack of empathy. These people have been suffering so much, and still they receive this verbal abuse.

“I think the harassment should have been struck down much harder. There was a fear that we should not make scapegoats – because one of the things Breivik wanted was to provoke society to start a witch-hunt against those who shared his views, so that they would be radicalised and become terrorists like him,” Bjørgo says.

“But I still think there could have been a much more systematic follow-up of those who continued with this hate mail and harassment – both a police and a political response. They should have been exposed and they should have been prosecuted.”

Åsne Seierstad. Photo/Supplied

Evil has a name

After the funerals, the marches, the outpouring of national grief, attention turned to the perpetrator, says Norwegian journalist Åsne Seierstad.

“The next phase was to try to find out what had happened, where he came from, who he was and why he did this. We had so many questions.”

In Norway, as we’ve already seen in New Zealand, there was debate about whether it is appropriate to peer too deeply into the killer’s life and motivations. In trying to understand what rock he crawled out from under, are we playing right into his narcissistic hands?

Like Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, then Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg avoided using the terrorist’s name. But as a journalist, Seierstad saw her role differently. She spent time with victims’ families, followed the trial and dug into Breivik’s past to write a book: One of Us: The Story of Anders Breivik and the Massacre in Norway.

Shining a light on extremism is important, she says: how it happens, what kind of people are attracted to terror, how they find each other online, what triggers them to act.

“These crimes are committed by people – evil actions happen because humans can be evil. I don’t think we can pretend he doesn’t have a name.

“As a journalist, I cherish facts, especially in this ‘post-factual world’, which is even more present now than it was back in 2011. Everything that is dark and unknown just creates conspiracy theories and rumours and false stories.”

Those open discussions should extend to the classroom, Seierstad says. As she toured the country with her book, teachers told her they were grateful to have a starting point for talking about the 2011 attacks.

“This is part of our recent history, as it will be of yours. How do you give tools to the teachers? We can’t expect every teacher to know how to talk about this – it’s not easy.” Eventually, the Christchurch attacks should be part of the curriculum in New Zealand, she says.

“Children will hear about this. These racist thoughts do exist in our societies, and these are the same thoughts that started World War II.

“This needs to be talked about in schools, because if children don’t have a language for this, all they will know is that something terrible happened in a mosque. I think talking about it will help them to have a way of dealing with it.”

The new structure on Utøya. Photo/Lars Petter Pettersen/Supplied

Real talk

Utøya has now become a place for exactly these sorts of difficult conversations. It took several years before families and survivors were ready to discuss what should happen on the island and how the attacks should be commemorated.

But in 2016, a new learning centre opened on Utøya. Sixty-nine pillars hold up the roof of the light-filled new building, representing those who lost their lives on the island that day. The new structure shelters within it part of the old cafe, where 13 of the young people were killed.

“In this way, the new building protects the memory of those who were killed,” says Ingrid Aspelund, “but it also creates new life and a space for engagement.” A senior adviser at the Oslo-based European Wergeland Centre, 30-year-old Aspelund runs a programme called “22 July and Democratic Citizenship” on Utøya.

During three-day workshops, 14- and 15-year-old high-school students from around Norway come to the centre to learn about the attacks, and how to confront extremism and hate speech. Each school sends two or three students and a teacher, who then return to act as multipliers within their communities.

“On the first day, they learn about what happened on July 22, 2011, they learn why Utøya and the government building were the targets that day. We talk about how this was a specific attack on the Labour Party, and that [Breivik] wanted to kill future political leaders. They reflect on the process of taking the island back, and what that really means: how do we respond to extremism? How do we respond to terror?”

Eight years ago, these students were just six or seven years old. They were sheltered from the news, and often have no memory of the attacks. Learning about what happened, right there on Utøya, can be overwhelming, Aspelund says. “What we see is that the first day is hard, especially, and it can be an emotional experience, but we also talk about that, if that is really something we should avoid or is that also how we learn?”

People react in different ways, too, and that’s okay, she says. “It’s not like we expect that 14-year-olds come to Utøya and they have to cry.

“It is a very special place, because of what happened on July 22, but it’s also special because it’s a place where you can play football, you can laugh and have fun, you can discuss, you can agree, you can disagree, you can look forward to the future.”

In the following days, Aspelund leads the students in a series of discussions about equality, democracy and human rights.

They role-play possible responses to hate speech on social media, while acknowledging there’s not necessarily a direct connection between violent speech and violent acts.

Exploring these dilemmas is critical, Aspelund says. “To be a democratic citizen means understanding that not everyone thinks the same as you or values the same things, and to actually address and explore the ‘grey areas’ is a way of engaging young people.

“It goes to the very core of how we live together as a society and how we keep that trust in each other, in individuals, in your neighbour, the people you go to school with and work with. Learning about and talking about this violent attack opens up such an important discussion.”

Ingrid Aspelund. Photo/Supplied

In their own words

One of the most moving parts of the workshop for many participants is when they meet a witness of the attacks – either a survivor who was at the summer camp or government building that day or a parent of one of the young people who was killed.

“It’s important to listen to the stories of those who were attacked,” says Aspelund. “It’s easier to focus on the perpetrator – and the students often have a lot of detailed questions about him – but we also want them to think about the victims. To meet someone, to hear someone’s voice, to have them tell their story is really powerful.”

Lisbeth Røyneland recently took part in one of the workshops as a witness. It wasn’t the first time she had returned to the island. That first occasion had been a terrible experience, she says: a grim, stormy day, the police showing her where her daughter was killed.

But returning to tell her story to a group of teenagers was healing. “They were so interested, they were so to the point in their questions. I thought, if these young people are taking over, then the country is in good hands.”

She went outside with the students to a pine tree where people have hung handwritten notes – small stories of remembrance of those who were lost, messages of hope for the future.

For nearly eight years, Utøya’s name had been associated with darkness, with tragedy. But in the warm autumn light, among the pines and the turning leaves, Røyneland could understand why so many people loved this island, and still do. “It’s so beautiful in the sunshine.”

This article was first published in the April 13, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.