Trying to Forget Breivik: One Year After the Norway Massacre

The events in Aurora, Colo., appear to echo the meticulously planned crime that devastated Oslo almost a year before. The Norwegians are still trying to figure out how to deal with the legacy of that mass murder

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Paula Bronstein / Getty Images

Friends and loved ones gather at the Oslo Cathedral on July 24, 2011 to mourn the victims killed in the bombing in downtown Oslo and mass shooting on Utoya island

The alleged actions of James Eagan Holmes in Aurora, Colo., seem to echo a horror from almost exactly a year ago: when a young Norwegian single-handedly carried out a meticulous operation that led to the deaths of scores. The people of Norway are still figuring out what to do with the legacy of that mass murder.

In Norway, July 22 has been scarred into the calendar by an attack that ranks among the worst peacetime atrocities in modern history. It has been a year since Norwegian right-wing terrorist Anders Behring Breivik gave up his arsenal to police on the formerly tranquil, wooded island of Utoya, bringing to an end a calculated slaughter that took the lives of 77 people. Exhausted by 12 months of blanket coverage, Norwegians hope to reclaim the date from Breivik by commemorating his victims.

Most were teenagers, members of the Labor Party youth wing (AUF), shot point blank on Utoya hours after the gunman set off a car bomb, killing eight in the center of Oslo. Over the course of a 10-week trial, Breivik told an Olso court at least a dozen times that his victims were complicit in their own fate because they were facilitating the “Islamization of Norway.”

The country has been patiently determined to allow Breivik his mandatory moment in court. But there is a desire now to sideline the killer and possibly even bury his ideals. Two victims’ support groups began that process on the last day of his trial on June 22, filing out of the courtroom in symbolic protest as the gunman was preparing to make his final statement. Meanwhile, the AUF is trying to rehabilitate Utoya, the holiday spot it has used for decades. On the anniversary, it will host a memorial service for its lost members.

AUF leader Eskil Pedersen says no matter how bloody, the island attack was not enough to erase the 60 years of good memories the group has on Utoya. “Being there will be the best way to mark the anniversary,” he says. “We will take it slowly, but we believe that we should one day return it to the use it had before last year.”

Kjell Fredrik Lie, who lost one daughter, Elisabeth, and nearly a second, Cathrine, a year ago, will not go back to the island. Instead, he will likely go to a service in Oslo Cathedral, which became the center for public grief in the days and weeks following the attacks. There will be echoes there of July 25 last year, when the queen cried during the bishop’s speech. The Prime Minister, Jens Stoltenberg, emerged from the church alongside Pedersen to an emotional silence from tens of thousands of Norwegians who had left roses in the courtyard outside.

The roses are back. But the raw disbelief has gone, and many will use the anniversary as a staging post to reclaim their lives. Bjorn Kasper Ilaug, who has suffered sleeplessness and memory loss since he took his boat to rescue terrified kids on Utoya, says he will use July 22 as a milepel, a “milestone” opportunity to change directions and go back to being an ordinary Norwegian.

Peter Svaar, a boyhood friend of the gunman and now a reporter covering the case for NRK, the Norwegian public broadcaster, says the rest of the country is similarly exhausted. “There have been so many facets of the story which have been covered,” he says. “People are tired of hearing about him, and it is very understandable that many people want closure.” July 22 will be the beginning of that, he says, before a public inquiry into what went wrong delivers its conclusion on Aug. 16. Breivik will finally be sentenced on Aug. 24.

The verdict pivots on whether or not Breivik was sane at the time of the attacks. Three quarters of Norwegians, according to a recent poll, and Breivik himself want him to be sentenced to prison rather than compulsory mental health care. But with a purpose-built, one-man hospital already constructed in the middle of the maximum-security Ila prison, Svaar believes the country will swallow either verdict.

“Speak to people who are involved and most of them will say that as long as he is locked away, it doesn’t matter whether the people around him are wearing a white or a light-blue shirt,” he says. “They know he will still spend the rest of his days there.”

In his speech at this year’s service, Pedersen will avoid uttering Breivik’s name at all, focusing on fallen comrades but also reiterating his pride that in the aftermath of the attacks last year, young survivors took the lead in pledging to combat Breivik’s ideas with more tolerance and a redoubled desire to ensure he will not change Norway’s open society and democratic institutions.

With some exceptions — not least the construction of the Breivik hospital — Norway has adhered to the latter ideal. There will be tinkering with the statute books to ensure he never walks free, but cops are still noticeably absent from city streets, politicians remain accessible, and children play happily on sidewalks.

Tolerance is more difficult to measure. Labor Party secretary, Raymond Johansen, says the AUF and Labor — the organizations Breivik blamed for the multiculturalism he despised — have both enjoyed upsurges in membership since last July. And in September the populist Progress Party, which once counted Breivik among its members, was thrashed in local elections.

Breivik’s own rhetoric long ago passed the lexicon from chilling to banal, even drawing laughter from the court during his last day on trial when he warned against the dangers of watching the sitcom Sex and the City and railed against Norway’s use of a Russian immigrant as a representative in the Europe-wide singing contest, Eurovision. But one does not need to go into many bars to find people who sympathize with his broadly anti-immigrant message. Meanwhile, the reaction among some in Oslo to a group of Roma travelers in the center of town in recent weeks has been virulent, with attacks on their camp from locals bearing fireworks and rocks, and Progress has bounced back in the polls.