Advancing a Free Society

Norwegian Violence: Where were the Police?

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The mass shooting on the Norwegian island of Utoya, in addition to the bombing in the government center of Oslo, elicited worldwide shock and revulsion and, understandably, has led to the search for a cause. Why would Anders Behring Breivik set off on this killing spree? Can we make this incomprehensible violence and loss of life understandable?

Looking for an explanation is a natural response, and Breivik seems to have preemptively obliged the public by leaving a 1500 page online document, as well as a Youtube clip, both uncannily accessible. The sheer scope of the murders has driven readers to his texts, and journalists have been picking them over, which has only increased their dissemination to an ever greater public.

We now know many of the killer’s sentiments, his hostility to Muslim immigration and multiculturalism, as well as his anger at “cultural Marxism.” On the basis of this amalgam, proponents of immigration and multiculturalism have unleashed an ideological attack on their antagonists, the many critics of Europe’s failed immigration and integration policies.

Yet to participate in that policy debate right now means falling into a trap that Breivik has intentionally set: the more these commentators discuss his writings, the more they do his work of propaganda, spreading his diatribe to an ever greater public. There is no such thing as bad publicity, and all the commentators discussing Breivik’s thought—especially those who condemn it—are just doing his bidding by broadcasting his message. The fact that his manifesto is written in a simplistic and insipid style only accelerates this process.

Instead of thinking about Breivik’s ideas, however, we should be thinking about his deeds. The frantic effort to score ideological points by trying to link any skepticism about immigration policies to Breivik’s thinking rests on a fundamental mistake: what took place on Utoya was not a thought crime—it was a violent crime. Instead of pretending that the killer is some kind of theoretician, we should recognize him as a criminal. It is therefore urgent to ask why Norwegian society was so susceptible to this crime and why the crime-fighting forces of order, the Norwegian police, were so ill equipped to stop it sooner.

Although attempts to call the police from Utoya began at 5:10 PM—only ten minutes after Breivik had started shooting—it was not until nearly 5:30 that Oslo took notice, and it took another half hour for help to depart by car toward the island. At the coast—close enough to the island to hear shouts for help—the rescue force could only find a small inflatable craft that nearly capsized. Eventually the police had to resort to borrowing a boat from a tourist.

It is incredible that Norway, a NATO member engaged in Afghanistan and Libya, has only one single police helicopter—this is a counter-terrorism force that lags irresponsibly far behind that of other European countries. Ironically, even Norwegian television was able to rent a helicopter to film the killing on the island more quickly than could the police arrive in order to stop it. They finally arrived at 6:25, nearly an hour and a half after the killing had started. Breivik surrendered without offering any resistance. By then he had killed 68 victims. Had the police been able to arrive earlier, one can only wonder how many might still be alive.

Sadly a police presence had been on the island from the start: one lone officer detailed to provide security, fifty-one year old Trond Berntsen. Yet like most police in Norway—similar to their colleagues in England and Iceland—Berntsen had no firearms, and he therefore became one of Breivik’s first victims. For Norway’s 8,000 police, only officers have access to guns, and even they can only use them if they request and are granted permission from their superiors. This lack of weapons is not a matter of financial resources; Norway is one of the most affluent countries in the world. It is rather a matter of a pacifist self-image and a delusion that Norway is immune to violence. Facing Breivik, a violent criminal, and isolated on an island, Berntsen had no chance to stop him.

Norway prides itself on its progressive political culture. One consequence of that culture is evidently the lack of a reliable counter-terrorism infrastructure. Another is the absence of a police force with the firepower to stop a determined criminal. Breivik could kill 68 victims in less than 90 minutes. If he is found guilty, Norway’s liberal judicial system will reportedly be able to give him a maximum sentence of 21 years, which comes to a little less than 4 months for every life he cut short—not much of a deterrence.

The world is a violent place, even in Norway. There is no security system so effective as to prevent criminals from ever engaging in violent acts. That is why Norway, like the rest of the world, needs police capable of intervening forcefully and effectively in emergency situations like this. There is some indication that the Norwegians are beginning to recognize this, as the tardy police response comes under increasingly critical scrutiny.

The point however is that the killings on Utoya were not primarily about Breivik’s ideas. Questions of immigration and multiculturalism can be discussed in other contexts. Utoya was about large-scale violent crime and the failure of the state to meet its primary obligation to its citizens: to provide for physical security and safety. Now that Norway’s vulnerability has been made so obvious, it is likely to face other threats, but so does the rest of the world, since terrorism knows no borders. The best response to inevitable crime is constant vigilance and sufficient police power to guarantee the security every state should provide. Let’s hope Norway will be better prepared next time. Let’s hope we are too.