We were in Amsterdam on July 22nd when the madman who is Anders Behring Breivik put into action his evil plan—something he had been plotting to do for nine years according to news sources. This by itself would boggle the mind; the fact that he went after children and teenagers on the island of Utøya is something that no one can or should ever forget. Watching and hearing about what unfolded there is like watching a horror movie, only with the knowledge that it is for real. I cannot imagine what went through the minds of those who experienced this horror, only that I would like to reach out my hand with a magic wand to obliterate the images that the survivors will live with for the rest of their lives. My brother, who worked in the Twin Towers in NY and who lost colleagues and friends on 9/11, says that many of those he knows who survived suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder ten years later. He was fortunately spared—first in 1993 when a car bomb went off in the parking lot under the towers, and then in 2001 on 9/11—both times he was away from his office. But even for those of us who were not physically present in NY when 9/11 occurred, the images of the Twin Towers being hit by the planes and then disintegrating have engraved themselves on our memories for always. To this day I cannot watch video footage of this happening without falling apart. So I know it will be the same for many of the survivors of July 22nd in Oslo and in Norway generally.
We watched the terror unfold in Oslo on a TV in a hotel room in Amsterdam. Minute for minute, hour for hour—updates, pictures, interviews, more updates. Shock and more shock. Stillness, deathly quiet—that is how the public’s reaction was described following the bombing in Oslo. That is shock. That is disbelief, horror, and sorrow. It is hard to believe that a huge car bomb went off in Oslo. It is hard to believe that a mass murderer mowed down so many young people on an island that is only accessible by boat. It is hard to fathom that it happened in peaceful Norway. And yet it did. It is hard to imagine that this society could have ‘grown’ such a person; that such a person could be the product of a free and democratic society. And yet he is. Norway in that respect is no different than other free and democratic countries. We pay a high price for our democratic philosophies and for our freedom of expression. But we must ensure that the price that both homegrown and external terrorists pay is even higher. What Breivik did is treasonous, and if it was wartime, he would be tried as a traitor. But it is not wartime. This is peacetime. So he will be tried as a mass murderer. He will go to prison for the rest of his life. But he goes to prison knowing that the families of those he murdered are in a prison of their own, of his making. They have lost their children or their spouses or their friends. This is the prison of death and sorrow. For some it is a lifetime sentence, for others it may not be so. But it is impossible to say what it will be for each person affected by this tragedy, because each person is an individual.
We joined the huge numbers of people who found their way into downtown Oslo yesterday. We placed flowers in front of the Oslo Cathedral like so many others. The front of the church has become a sea of flowers, spreading out in all directions. We were there at 3pm; by 7pm the sea had doubled in size, both horizontally and vertically. There are layers upon layers of flowers, interspersed with lit votive candles. Many people circled the sea—just standing and reflecting, taking pictures, others explaining to their children what had happened. What they could not explain was why is happened. No one will ever really know why evil happens. But it does. Evil exists. Hate exists. Darkness exists. Sometimes the darkness tries to obliterate the light. But the sea of flowers is a symbol of compassion and love for the victims and their families, and really for all those affected by terror and tragedy. I remember the flowers and candles and flags that people in Oslo placed in front of the American embassy building after 9/11. People reached out, like they do now, with compassion and thoughtfulness, and I hope these feelings and emotions last and lead to a more empathetic world society.