This past week, all DIS students traveled on a long study tour with our core course. My core course is Terrorism and Counter-Terrorism From a European Perspective. For our class, we traveled to Norway to focus on right-wing terrorism, specifically the July 22nd attack in Norway. With that said, some other classes did bike tours around the city or wine tastings or enjoy the beach, and I would not have traded my long study tour for the world.
On July 22nd in 2011, a terrorist set off a bomb that targeted government buildings in Oslo and then drove about an hour and a half to the island of Utøya where he targeted a political summer camp. Eight people were murdered by the bomb and sixty-nine people were murdered with assault weapons on the island. A large majority of the people were campers–children in their teens. This was the first terrorist attack of this scale in Norway.
Our first stop in Oslo was visiting 22 July Center, right by the government building where the bomb exploded. Here, we were first exposed to the topic of July 22nd formally in Oslo. From class, it was difficult to understand the extent to which Norway was affected by this attack as a whole. However, hearing about the event from Norwegians and being at the 22 July Center really helped highlight just how much the terrorist attack shook and devastated the country.
We spent two nights on the island of Utøya. The first night we arrived in time for dinner, then we settled down into our cabin, showered, and went to bed after a long day of traveling. I was highly uncomfortable trying to fall asleep knowing about the tragedy that occurred on the island. Walking to our cabin on the island, I absorbed the grief of families and friends who lost someone on July 22nd, I sensed the fear lingering in the air, and I felt the terror of the children running for their lives. The experience made me want to cry, curl up into a ball, throw up, and run away all at once.
After breakfast the next morning, we had a guided tour of the island. We walked around and continued to see memorials of where people died. The island is small, about 10x the area of a football field. I can walk around the majority of the island in 30 minutes. Everything that is on the island was affected by the tragedy. And it shows. There are memorials where people died along the Love Path. The boat we used to get onto the island was the boat the terrorist used to get on the island as well. The bullet holes are still preserved where the terrorist took lives from people.
You’re stuck facing the tragedy with no emotional or physical escape.
We heard a survivor speak to us the next day. He said when he heard gunshots he just sat down. In his mind, he did nothing wrong so the person shooting would not shoot him. The innocence of so many people was just ripped right out of their souls on July 22nd. The survivor also mentioned how many youths in his political party still get death threats and letters saying that “you should have died on Utøya” on social media accounts. I sat with my classmates, not saying much because I was just filled with anger and disgust at how someone could intentionally cause this much pain.
I just feel so lost in my thoughts.
How do these families deal with the pain? Where do you draw the line on free speech? Should we even say Breveik’s name? Why are we okay with mass shootings like this happening in the United States so often? Why is there so much hate in this world?
After July 22nd, the government and those involved in the attacks had to learn how to respond to the attack with a ferocity that the terrorist would not win. As July 22nd was the first attack of this magnitude in Norway, there was no precedence in the response and people had to learn as they went.
There were direct, measurable changes that occurred in response to July 22nd: upped security around government buildings and improvements in the police system to allow them to respond faster and coordinate between units more efficiently.
But there were also more intricate things that needed a response. What was there to change to prevent an attack like this again? How do you go about change? What narrative should be told about the attack?
Memorializing the lives lost
Many people argued about the role of the island after the July 22nd attack. Some people thought that the island should be preserved completely as a painful reminder of what happened that day in 2011. Others thought everything should be knocked down and rebuilt to forget about the event and move forward. What happened was a mix as decided by people involved with Utøya survivors on the island, and families of the victims.
To memorialize the event and the lives, Utøya created a room within a room. The inner room is the exact preserved room from July 22nd, 2011–bullet holes, pianos, and flowers exactly where the victims died. The outer room was built after the attack and shared the timeline of July 22nd, text messages that youth on the island sent during the attack, and stories of who the victims were and their goals in life.
The smaller room remained in its raw pain. The outer room served as protection for the smaller room. The two rooms are symbolism of Utøya’s goals. One to preserve the sanctity of the event and remember the pain of the lives lost. The second room was built for reflection to allow for growth. It protects the inner room so something like July 22nd does not happen again.
Reclaiming of Utøya
As we spent more time on Utøya, we participated in workshops. We learned about how Utøya reclaimed its original mission and continues to be a summer camp where they educated youth on the ideas of democracy. Something they highlight on Utøya is teaching youth that democracy is more than just voting and checking off a ballot. Democracy is using your voice to speak out against injustices and hate speech. Democracy is analytically thinking about the power individuals have and how to utilize it.
Before July 22nd, Utøya was an island to educate youth about politics. After July 22nd, Utøya reclaimed its original purpose and continues to be a summer camp where they teach young kids about democracy. July 22nd only interrupted the goals of Utøya for a short period of time while looking at the history of Utøya as a whole.
Writing the narrative of history as it continues to unfold
In addition to educating people on democracy, Utøya took on a new role in writing the history of July 22nd–a history that is both being shaped and written today. Utøya is still in a fight to retake the narrative away from the terrorist and replace it with a message of hope.
The second half of our study tour was spent in Oslo where we heard from different experts on right-wing terrorism and prevention methods used in Oslo. We also had the amazing opportunity to visit the courthouse where Breivik (the July 22nd terrorist) was on trial and discussed with many experts how to continue on after a terrorist attack like this and
It was interesting hearing different analyses of July 22nd and Breivik. Historians, survivors, and the general Norwegian public all tell the story slightly differently–an attack on democracy, an attack on the people of Norway, or a political attack on a certain party. Ten years after the attack, the narrative is still fluid and the effects are still being felt.
Life and hope and love (with anger)
My first reaction to July 22nd is still anger and devastation.
I’m not an angry person. I believe in hope. I believe in the good. It takes a lot to get me angry. But I’m so angry about this.
The anger is still prevalent. And so are the fear, the sadness, and the pain. But the uncomfortableness faded as more time was spent on Utøya. We began to fill the awkward gap of silence and fear with laughter and love and hope and life.
On Utøya, my classmates and I slept in the cabin where many survivors hid during the attack. Our cabin was filled with life on July 22nd, 2011. And we continued that tradition and filled it with life ten years later in 2021.
We took our shoes off in our cabin and the common hall with the library and dining hall. Taking our socks off made it feel more like home and released everyone’s inner child as we slid down the halls. In the library, we played games after dinner–I’ve never seen my class laugh as hard as we did when Campbell (our faculty/professor) lept through the air pretending to be Peter Pan during a game of charades.
There is a tree on Utøya that has paper tied to it with messages of hope and love. The notes danced in the wind like they were alive. Sometimes the wind was so strong that the notes were blown off the tree. But every day when my class saw the notes on the ground, we would pick them up and re-tie them to the tree, continuing the work of love and hope that others before us started.
On the island, there continues to be a juxtaposition on the island of life and death. They coexist in a dance–sometimes you feel more of the death and sometimes you feel more of the life. We couldn’t replace the grief and the pain, nor would I want to. It should always be there to remind people that kindness and acceptance are worth fighting for.
In my opinion, the reclaiming of Utøya was successful. Grief and anger and hope and life can and do coexist. Especially with a little bit of determination mixed in there.
I was once told by one of my English teachers that to write clearly is to think clearly. I think that’s why I struggled writing this post so much. Because I legitimately have thought about my long study tour for tens of hours while sitting on busses and planes, walking to class, laying in my bed listening to music, etc. I don’t know what to do with what I learned during this week–I have more questions than answers. I still don’t have clear thoughts on my study tour. But the story of July 22nd needs to be shared, and it’s better done imperfectly than never being done at all.
There is another layer of frustration underneath the initial anger and the hope. This paper took so long to write because I felt like I had to find answers before I published the blog. Well, I got some news. I still have a lot of frustration and I still have no answers. I’ve never struggled so much to articulate my thoughts because they’re stuffed with frustration. But here goes.
I urge you to keep an open mind when reading this.
I’m frustrated about the growing apathy of those towards the radial-right and I’m frustrated about how that has seeped into the mainstream across the world. I’m frustrated at the apathy that people have 10 years later when it comes to Breivik’s ideals after the initial outpour of love that Norway showed in their rose parades.
In response to the July 22nd attacks, Norway unified like never seen before with people marching to the streets as a beacon of hope with roses in support of the victims, survivors, and their families. The support was there for the 77 people that died. Love and hope are still very much so concentrated on the island, but that sentiment has faded in the general public of Norway. And so did the determination. Utøya is still fighting against it, but that is not nearly enough.
The initial outpour of love was because 77 people died. Are their lives insignificant now that no one cares? And where is it ten years later for the youth of the labor party still getting death threats? People were in support of the grieving families at the time, but no one is interested in doing the work against right-extremists (which are the ideals the terrorist stood for). Do we need something horrible for us to start fighting for the good? How do we go about showing love and hope proactively?
That made me feel even more frustrated about how I’m so numb to school shootings in the United States. I feel so separated from them but people are DYING and it feels like no one cares. Not really.
But I’m also frustrated because that brings in the debate surrounding free speech and democracy. Because I don’t know the answer.
My whole class was in a debate for a long time about the importance of free speech and to what extent it should be preserved. Some people argued that you shouldn’t be able to say any hate speech at all. Others said that censorship is how all fascist regimes have started and censorship is worse than the alternative.
I’m not taking a stance on the debate. However, I would like to point out that not listening to each other is, in a sense, a form of censorship. The whole time, everyone was so set in their opinions and refused to listen or concede and debated definitions of words, etc. For a class debate, that’s fine. But when you take that into the larger extent of far-right extremism, mainstream, and left-leaning ideals–if my classmates can’t even listen to each other, what hope do we have to change the world?
Here’s where I struggle the most–people are out here saying that we should fight for democracy. But democracy is where everyone’s voices should be heard. However, why should we listen to right-wing extremists who hate immigrants, gay people, and women and want to silence their voices? But then again, what makes my opinions more valid than his? And I know why I think my opinion is more valid than his–because I support all people and I support equality. But if I support equality, then his voice should be heard too. But I don’t want to support his voice. So am I against democracy? What makes one person better than another? Because in reality, we are just two people.
I’m just frustrated that 77 people died.
A lot of people when they learn about tragedies like July 22nd, they say ‘live every day like your last’ or something about telling your family that you love them. I respect and totally understand why people think that and I also agree with it and I love my family a lot. But the origin of that thought makes me so mad. Because no one should die like those people did on July 22nd and people should not have to live in fear of dying like they did. It was hard for me to sit through people analyzing July 22nd and the terrorist because in my mind I could only focus on the lives that ended that day and how no one seemed to care about them.
The experience itself was one of pain and sorrow and frustration but I’m so thankful for the experience that I had.
I didn’t want to forget about my experience in Utøya. The whole message was we CANNOT let Utøya go dark. The whole point of the island being ‘reclaimed’ is to send messages of hope, democracy, light, and life after the tragedy. On the bus ride leaving from Utøya and the plane leaving Oslo I just thought about how I could continue the work that began this week.
I believe that infrastructural change has to occur to prevent attacks like this. The attack was a result of a failure of democracy. And I have a vested interest in helping to improve the world. However, I have no interest in politics, so I sat and wondered for a long time about how I can positively change the world and make an impact in my own way. I did not want to leave Utøya as the same person who arrived. So I settled on simply making sure that I care for my direct communities–classmates, coworkers, friends, family, people I pass on the street, etc–through things like sharing a smile and making sure people are taken care of. I believe that people have a personal responsibility to check their biases and speak out against hate speech. I’m gonna do my best at that too.
So I’m still angry about this. But I do still believe in the good. I don’t know if I would say I’m hopeful, but I’m downright determined to spread good on my part.