The canary birds

I wrote this post in July after a couple of days of frustration at having seen the country lose all reason, but waited a few weeks before sending it to newspapers. I have recently decided to post this English version as well.  I do not think I’ve ever seen as much sickening melodrama from public figures and media as I have in the months since the terrorist attack in July. I rarely write letters to the editor, but I sent this letter to the three largest newspapers in Norway, VG, Dagbladet and Aftenposten.  None of them found my words worthy of the space. It was interesting, however, that the thoughts I had already 22.07 later appeared in a number of commentators and celebrity blogs.

The public sector in Norway has mourned for a couple of weeks now, and I see the need for it among those affected, but I’m still amazed at the total lack of critical voices. Those came later, but in my opinion media should have raised these questions earlier.

I lived in the United States 10 years ago and witnessed the whole country going “bananas” after 9 / 11. There was extreme pressure to be patriotic, and it was almost like a “who is the most American-contest”.  If you did not participate in this public circus, many practically questioned whether the U.S. could trust you. The worst part was that the American media followed on the same track. There was no watchdog among the media and not a single media outlet asked the the necessary critical questions at time or during the months and years immediately afterward, when America was framing and implementing its response.  Statements from the Norwegian media and Norwegian politicians are not promising for the development of an honest and meaningful discussion in Norway either.

When I want to put a critical spotlight on the parties responsible for preventing and responding to terrorism in Norway Politiets Sikkerhets Tjenester (PST, Norwegian equivalent to CIA) is a natural starting point. It took quite a long time before they commented on the terrorist attack in Oslo and Utøya at all, and when they finally arrived on the scene, it was to admit that they had had Breivik on a list since March 2011. It seems to me that Breivik changed behavior in the few months leading up to 22.07.11, and that is suspicious in itself. When someone who has expressed extreme opinions on the net, and perhaps physically met others with the same opinions, suddenly decides to move out of Oslo, rent a farm, buy fertilizers, order chemicals and weapon-parts online, shouldn’t that make the authorities curious at the very least? If the answer is no, I do not understand what you have to do to be considered interesting by the PST. As far as I understand Breivik didn’t even try to hide its tracks. He probably thought that it was not necessary, and he was unfortunately right! A more frightening possibility is that he was an amateur in every way.

When it comes to the general population, I have my doubts whether this euphoric mood that prevails at the moment will last. Politicians say they intend to stop bickering, media are suddenly going to be nice and we will all love each other. It sounds great! We’ve been there before, although in a somewhat lighter version, but it has never had a lasting effect.

Think of this analogy /metaphor:
Canaries were used to warn miners in the 19th and 20 century. They would bring a cage with a canary down the mine and when it stopped chirping the miners knew that there was no more oxygen left, and that they therefore had to get out.

I would argue that the terrorist Breivik didn’t suddenly step out of the shadows. There have been signs or ‘canaries’ in the development towards his action in Oslo and Utøya this summer. In the following I will point to some of them.

Canary Bird # 1: In 1999, Arve Karlsen, originally from India, was chased into a river in Sogndal and drowned. The plain truth is that this was a racist murder, but media talked about plain bullying. The local police chief denied that racism existed in the municipality.

Canary Bird # 2: Benjamin Hermansen was killed in 2001. Some teenagers from the neo-nazi group Boot Boys performed the deed.

Canary Bird # 3: Asylum shots. In 2008, a 16-year-old Somali boy was in critical condition after a Norwegian lawyer shot into the asylum center where he lived. Except that no one was killed and that it was on a completely different scale, this was in fact the same as Breivik did this summer. The offender was arrested, but declared psychotic, and therefore not punished.

Canary Bird # 4: Ambulance case. In 2007 the Norwegian-Somali Ali Haji Mohamed Farah was brutally beaten down by a man from Ghana. This assault was not racially motivated, but what about the ambulance drivers’ behavior? They refused to help him and later stated that they thought he was a drug addict. From living in the U.S., I know that ambulance drivers do not refuse anyone help. Whether there is a homeless man who stinks of urine, a “junkie”, who is obviously high, or a public order problem does not matter. Everyone gets help from university hospitals (in the private hospitals there is of course a question of insurance). Shouldn’t we expect the same here?  Do we really want our first responders arbitrarily deciding who does or does not get help based on race, religion, ethnicity, whether or not they think someone’s drunk, or any other superficial or irrelevant nonsense?

What the canaries were to the mine workers, these “minor” incidents (minor compared to 77 deaths), but certainly serious enough) events are to us. They told us that something new was happening. This was something entirely different from the seditious Progress Party and People’s Movement against Immigration that many Norwegians listened to in the 1980s. I’m not convinced that people got the message, however. It was difficult to see the murder of Benjamin Hermansen as anything other than racism, but when it comes to the other canaries, they were written off as something else. The terrorist attacks on July 22nd showed, however, that some people were willing to go very far, but once again we are not willing to use the word racism. It was perhaps coincidental that Breivik was the first one, but it was inevitable in naive Norway. I think there are more who think like him, and who are willing to act. He has been described as an amateur and may not be as intelligent as many first thought. Nevertheless, we were not ready. Are we ready for someone who is not a stupid amateur.

The question now is: What do we do about this?
I have tried for years to discuss racism, but eventually more or less gave it up. The attitude I encounter is that racism does not exist in Norway, and thus a debate is not necessary. There are many small and large racial abuses in Norway every day, but most people refuse to admit that it happens here. Sometimes something very dramatically occurs, like the murder of Benjamin Hermansen. The community response is usually to collect tens of thousands of people in the streets to show that we are not racists. Only extreme racists have that kind of power in Norway. Afterwards we still close or eyes to injustice we see in our everyday life.

What is needed is a zero tolerance for racism. We can all do things in everyday life. If we hear someone say something negative about immigrants or do something wrong because they have the wrong skin color or religion, we can tell them what we think about their behavior. It is important to tell Breivik and others like him that we disagree with them. It’s great that we show disgust on days like 22.07, but life is just as important.

Many people have experienced in different contexts that people do not take them seriously, they will not listen. Most Norwegians are in agreement that we can not tolerate racism, but when it comes to action, we are not as good. For example, if you have a neighbor with a minority background who claims to have experienced racism in Norway, you should listen. If your neighbor feels that you dismiss him / her, it quickly becomes very frustrating. I am not going to pretend that I know how it feels to be part of a minority, but we can all probably imagine how rejection and lack of acceptance feels like. If you believe what many have said, that life can not be the same after 22.07, this is a contribution we can all do. It’s that easy and that hard to stop racism.

I fear that we will witness new terrorist attacks in Norway. The hope is that Stoltenberg and Storberget will do the work in advance so that they do not have to show off at press conferences and meeting with survivors.


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