I feel compelled to write now, in the wake of what has happened in Newtown, both as a Norwegian and as an American.
I do so because I feel blinded by grief and because I am overwhelmed. I am weary of seeing these things happen, again and again. More than anything, I feel the need to figure out where we are and what we should do. I need to find hope. Although I cannot make sense of the murders themselves – they remain senseless and heinous to me – I believe that we owe it to the next generation to find a way forward. But how can we help them find their way, when the world is as it is?
I’ll be honest: During the past few days I have been so angry and saddened that my main urge has been to go to the center of town, stand on a a soapbox, pull out a bullhorn and yell words like ENOUGH and STOP, until my voice is so hoarse that I can no longer speak. This is simply a fantasy, however, far removed from who I am and what I do. So I am turning to this blog instead.
I write with my sons, 8 and 12, clearly in my mind. I have been raising them with intimate knowledge of two cultures, two languages. I have always considered this a blessing. These days, that blessing seems more like a curse. When you love two people equally, you will also grieve for each of them when they suffer. So it is with my two nations as well. I grew up in both countries, celebrated holidays from both cultures, learned both languages. Yet I never imagined events like these.
Not in America. And certainly not in Norway.
It is now – almost to the day – 18 months since the attacks in Oslo and at Utøya on July 22nd, 2011. This country, the country in which I go to work and raise my children, has steadily moved forward. The trial, which ended just months ago, seems far away now, like the remembered fragments of some terrible dream.
The shock returns when I realize where these fragments come from, that they are rooted in real and terrible events. The realization comes to me at strange moments, when I pass the courthouse downtown, which is a block from my office, or when I cross the plaza near the damaged government building, which is right across the street. The realization is also there when I drive past Utøya, as I happened to do this fall.
Although the dust has settled and the killer of Norwegian teens and children is safely contained in his cell, the echoes and shockwaves from what happened continue to reverberate. But for me, their sound is more drawn-out, perhaps, more spread out, than I think it is for other people I know. Or perhaps the sound simply has a different, more somber tone.
Even before the slaughter of those innocents in Newtown, there had been so many massacres in the media that it seemed as though normal chronology had shifted. It seemed as though time had collapsed. What is not a year on the calendar, at least not technically, seems like a year to me. 2011 began, not in January, but on July 22nd, when a man shot and killed so many teens in the middle of summer vacation. It ends in 2012, with the death of 20 small children just days before Christmas.
These events are connected to me. They have become an integral part of my consciousness. They populate my mental state and alter my perception. To paraphrase Don DeLillo: They have colonized my unconscious, even infiltrated my dreams. But they are also a part of the real and material world. Although I live in one of the safest places on the planet, the after-effects of the slaughter are all around.
As it happens, I have visited Utøya, with a friend who has since written a critically acclaimed book about the perpetrator, Anders Behring Breivik. I know some of the victims of that terrible day, some better than others, most tangentially. I have also seen where they fell or hid or cried for mercy from the terrorist. Some lost a finger or the mobility in their legs. Or friends or loved ones. Others lost their lives.
Later, this last summer, I drove past Aurora, Colorado, where James Holmes wounded and killed so many. Although this new gunman seemed apolitical, and is perhaps psychotic, his two-step method was reminiscient of Breivik’s. He had rigged his apartment with explosives before entering the theatre, in the hope that he might take more lives after the fact, when law enforcement opened the door.
I was driving past Aurora in a rental car, with my two sons in the back seat. We were on our way to Milwaukee, where my mother happens to live. That, too, was a city in grief. The Sikh community was still reeling from the massacre at the temple in Oak Creek. When we landed in early August, there were flags at half mast all over the city. I recall explaining to my children why this was the case, what it meant and pointing out that Wade Michael Page, was, like Breivik, a right-winger.
Some would criticize me for being so clear and vocal with my children, for exposing them to all of this. I certainly understand this perspective, but I respectfully disagree. As my wife has written in both Norwegian and American newspapers, we believe that it is important to speak and listen to our children in the wake of such events. They hear about the terror anyway, we find, and it is better that they learn about them in perspective than see them as disconnected snippets.
For children a cohesive narrative will always be better than random shards of fear.
This time around, however, in the wake of Newtown, explaining what had happened seemed harder than ever. One reason lies in the mystery presently surrounding the event. We still know very little about what motivated the gunman in Connecticut. We know that he may have a personality disorder. And we know that his mother was something of a gun enthusiast. Aside from that, the story is still murky. Our view of the background is vague.
My trepidation lies elsewhere, though, not so much in my lack of knowledge, but in the terror of what I already know; in the weariness of knowing, of living with what has happened, of looking into the eyes of my children and realizing that their innocence cannot last. There is one fact above all others that fills me with horror. It springs out of how much has been altered since I was child, both in Norway and in the United States. But also out of a sense of how and why change will be difficult.
Certainly much more must be done to prevent mass killings. I believe that the United States will benefit from stricter gun control laws and gun return programs, like those adopted in Australia and the U.K. I believe that young men and boys, especially those who are mentally ill, need better care. I believe that we need to stop using hateful and alarmist rhetoric on the internet, much of which contributed to radicalizing Breivik. We need to keep a watchful eye on extremists, be they on the far right or the far left.
I know all of this. But I also know that these changes won’t be enough.
The July 22nd attacks proved to me that mass killings can happen just about anywhere, even in nations where the population is – to put it mildly – less inclined to purchase assault weapons. The massacre in Colorado proved to me that a terrorist can lack ideology and still be a terrorist, not so much in name as in method. It seems as though we live in an age of what might be called «nihilist terrorism»: paramilitary in nature, but lacking in politics, fueled only by hate and the urge to inflict harm.
Moreover, there is an increasing rawness, an incomprehensible cynicism, to this relatively new form of murder.
Put bluntly: In the past, if you were hateful and wanted to express your rage, you gunned down your family and then took your own life. Doing so was terrible enough. Today, mass killings have became commonplace, at least in the United States. For a while they seemed like random events, but with Columbine, a new brutality was introduced into our collective conciousness. Over time, we saw similar events in Finland and Germany. And then Breivik invaded Utøya.
The differences between school shootings and the attacks in Norway are obvious. But so are the similarities. Although Breivik’s actions were driven by ideology, he sought attention in a very specific way.
What he did was new, at least in Norway. But in a global context his actions seemed so painfully familiar. By 2011, terrorism and bombings had become commonplace. The murder of two or three people was little more than a small ripple in a tidal wave of media stories. So Breivik upped the ante. Teens and youths became his main target. This is how he chose to make his mark in the world.
With Newtown, we have seen the mass murder of very small children, most as young as 6 and 7. The murders are heartbreaking enough in and of themselves. But I find myself equally disturbed by the incremental changes I see from event to event, and by how familiar these changes have become to me. I am frightened to discover that I wax nostalgic for a time when simple, everyday murder was enough. Where are we heading? What’s next? Random, mass shootings at day care centers? At weddings and funerals?
If mass murder at this scale is indeed a cry for attention (and I believe that it is), the murderers are willing to do more and more to achieve that goal. And they do so more often than before. The amount of terrible events like these is indeed increasing (despite the fact that murder rates in many of the places mentioned are either stable or on the way down). With this increase, we see a change in the methods used and the targets chosen.
Therein lies the horror: I have realized that I am raising my children in the age of the mass shooter. My boys are growing up at a time when they are targets, not in spite of their innocence, mind you, but because of it, simply because they are young and alive. The hatred and need for attention has always been there. But the way in which it is expressed exposes aspects of Western culture that are only partly remedied by better gun laws, stronger health care and vigilant surveillance of extremists.
I fear that this is the case. Therefore, I believe that we need to seriously examine the language we use and the attention we afford these events. I do not believe that we can or should stop reporting on them. Killers will continue to receive undeserved attention. But we can strive to approach their victims with the caution and somberness that they deserve.
More than anything, I believe that we must preserve – or, rather, enhance – what is still good in the world, even if the good things seem small and insignificant. As I already indicated, I do not believe that we can shelter children from the news completely. Once they have reached a certain age, the news will reach them in one way or another. They have a right to have what happens in the world put in a context of some sort, a context that they can understand.
But they also have right to have their joy and fun continue, regardless of what is happening around them. If there is one person we should be focusing on, again and again, in the wake of this tragedy, it is Janet Vollmer. She is the teacher – or, rather, one of the teachers – who comforted the children of Newtown as they waited for rescue. Although she was terrified, she gave those children a moment or two of solace. Nothing more. Nothing less.
We certainly need to understand where the hate comes from and what we can do to prevent it. But we must also work to increase and enhance the love. As the rose demonstrations and trial in Norway have shown, these two tasks need not mutually exclusive. They can be part and parcel of the same process.
This is what Janet Vollmer instinctively understood, during a time of panic, in what we can only assume was the most desperate moment in her life. For this, I admire her to no end. Like the children she comforted, I find wisdom in her actions. They point to an obvious truth: the best things we can do are neither mediated in the moment nor governed into place. She did not know if she would survive; she could not expect reward or attention; yet she chose to act, in a very specific way.
When CNN asked Vollmer how she found the composure to read a story to the children in the midst of all the chaos, her response was as amazing as it was obvious: «With five-year-olds, you can’t lose it.»
So simple. So clear.
We are at our best in the world when we behave in a way that the mass killer, in his cry for attention, will never understand. We are at our best when we fill our communities with words and deeds for the sake of themselves, with a pragmatic morality so clear and simple that it goes virtually unnoticed – because the words and deeds are valuable in and of themselves. Because words and deeds can offer comfort. They can help people, particularly children, find their way in the world.
During this holiday season I will strive, however possible, in ways large and small, to follow Janet Vollmer’s example. Join me.