I’ve put off writing about the attacks in Norway because like most people I found the news too overwhelming to make sense of, and some of the short-term reaction on UK blogs and twitter, degenerating into arguments about what the attacks meant, distasteful.
There have been suggestions that we shouldn’t look at the political nature of the attacks, and instead just concentrate on the pure inhumanity and criminality.
I think that would be a mistake and might lead us to not take seriously the threat of further far-right violence.
Our first reaction has to be grief and rage at such dreadful acts perpetrated against such innocent victims, but then we have to look at what motivated their killer. The cold-blooded slaughter of so many young people in any place would have been just as horrifying. But Anders Behring Breivik wasn’t just some crank with a gun killing kids in a school (as has happened in Finland) or on a campus.
He deliberately chose one of the most iconic political targets in his country that he could. Utoeya is a place close to the heart of Norway’s Labour Party (Arbeiderpartiet). It wasn’t a one-off venue for the Workers’ Youth League’s (AUF – the youth section of the Labour Party) – summer camp. The island has been owned by AUF since 1950 when it was bought for them by the Oslo Trade Union Confederation as a permanent education and conference centre. For 61 years it has hosted the annual AUF summer camp, as well as other centre-left organisations’ summer camps, seminars and retreats. Through AUF’s involvement in IUSY (the youth section of the Socialist International), FNSU (the Joint Committee of the Nordic Labour Youth Movement) and its observer status in ECOSY (the youth section of the Party of European Socialists), many international guests, including from the UK, have spent time there.
As Vice-President of ECOSY from 1997 to 2001 I didn’t get the chance to visit Utoeya, but did get to meet many comrades from AUF and go to its impressive counterpart in Sweden, Bomersvik. I also experienced young socialist summer camps in a number of countries. For anyone who hasn’t been it is difficult to convey the heady mixture of political debate, partying and comradeship a political summer camp involves. Reconciling some of my happiest memories of such events with the horror that unfolded at Utoeya is very difficult.
As well as being somewhere where young socialists go to have fun, the AUF summer camp is also a serious and significant event in Norway’s political calendar. The speeches given and debates held there are reported in the national press. The former PM and WHO Director General, Gro Harlem Brundtland, spoke there on the day of the massacre, and was one of Breivik’s targets, but left the island before he arrived. Current PM Jens Stoltenberg was due to speak there.
This reflects AUF’s central role in Norwegian centre-left politics. Relatively speaking it is a huge organisation, with nearly 10,000 members and dozens of full-time staff in a country with a population 1/13th that of the UK. The views of the AUF leadership carry serious weight inside the Labour Party. Almost every leading figure in the Party started their career in AUF: Stoltenberg was the national AUF leader from 1985-’89, his predecessor as PM Thorbjørn Jagland held the same post from 1977-’81.
AUF combines a younger age profile than Young Labour in the UK – with many school-age young people involved, which adds to the horror of the attack – with a leadership who are already considered by the media and public in Norway to be serious political figures. Because the majority of the Party leadership came out of AUF most of them, as Stoltenberg acknowledged when he spoke after the attacks, will have spent parts of the formative summers of their teens and twenties at Utoeya. It will be where they grew up, both as politicians and as people. So by attacking Utoeya Breivik was attempting, having attacked the Labour Party’s current leadership with the bomb at the PM’s office in Oslo, to destroy part of its history (the role of the island itself), to assassinate its former Leader Brundtland and to literally kill its future by killing a whole generation of future Labour leaders.
Breivik has admitted as much himself in court, saying he was targeting Labour for “driving its ideological line and keeps deconstructing Norwegian culture and mass importing Muslims” and thought that by killing young Labour members he could damage recruitment to the Party and stamp out “”cultural Marxism.” Ironically, his actions are likely to have the opposite effect.
It is too easy and too dangerous to dismiss Breivik as a lone lunatic. There is a risk that the organisation he claims to be part of does have the other active cells he claims, prepared to commit equally dreadful acts of terrorism. He represents the most extreme end of a spectrum of opinion that by dehumanising immigrants, particularly Muslims, and defining leftwing defenders of multi-culturalism as “cultural traitors”, makes it acceptable to use violence against them.
Norway’s and Europe’s history shows that whilst Breivik’s ideas may be objectively lunatic that has not stopped them proving attractive to large numbers of people. The great-grandparents of the dead of Utoeya participated as Labour activists in armed resistance in Norway against a Nazi occupation supported by a homegrown collaborationist movement, the Quislings. I do not know if Breivik is technically a neo-Nazi or some other kind of far-right-winger. Frankly the debate about that seems irrelevant. The ideology of race hate, the conspiracy theories about minority communities, the fetishist obsession with uniforms and regalia, the cold-blooded execution of innocent people because they are of a different faith or different politics, are all straight out of the Nazi script. The rhetoric in Breivik’s manifesto, citing hordes of Asiatics and Marxists swamping Europe, and an elite band of knightly Aryan “heroes” stopping them (“heroes” who shoot unarmed children), reads like a piece of SS recruitment material from 1944.
Nor do I think it is helpful to get into a debate of “compare and contrast” with Al-Qaeda and Islamist terrorism. What we were reminded last Friday is that the enemies of democracy and human decency come in all shapes and sizes. We have to stand up to all of them.
And the “there’s a reason or excuse” argument regarding extremism and terrorism looks daft after Utoeya. Breivik was a well-off young man with enough money to run his own business. Immigrants represented no threat to him economically or in any other sense. Norway is a country of almost universal oil-generated prosperity with a cultural heritage that is more threatened by US popular culture than by Islam. There’s no excuse for far right terrorism – just the sick world view of someone so insecure they hate and dehumanise people for being different to them. There’s never any valid excuse for terrorist murder of innocent people – whether of the far right variety or far left or Islamist ones.
We have to take the threat of the far right in Europe seriously, whether it’s the murderous variety like Breivik, or street thugs beating up ethnic minorities, or just idiots who preach hatred and provide the ideological framework that gives the violent their “excuse”.
But alongside that the best memorial we can give to the innocent dead of Utoeya is to keep on campaigning for the values of democracy, multi-culturalism and social justice they were there to celebrate. Rest in peace young comrades, we will try our best to uphold your memory.