The Tragedy in Norway

Here follows a comment by John McTernan, Adelaide Thinker in Residence and a former advisor to Tony Blair on the tragedy in Norway:

Travelling the world for the British govermment and the Labour Party I have met a lot of impressive fellow activists – and among them all I have liked none more than the Norwegians. Thoughtful, modest, moral – just what you hoped for, and so much more. The best of what politics has to offer anywhere. I was in Oslo in May for the Progressive Government Summit and was impressed once again by how positive and progressive the country was. So well run. So calm and sensible. This experience was in my mind when the news of the bomb attack in Oslo came through. I immediately thought how incongruous terrorism on the streets of that beautiful city was. How un-Norwegian.

Then, as details came out, it became clear that this was not a random bombing but an attack on the Prime Minister’s Office. Jens Stoltenberg is one of Europe’s stars. His response to this attack has found a perfect tone, solemn yet defiant: “We are a small country, but a very proud one. Nobody can bomb us to be quiet. Nobody can shoot us to be quiet. Nobody can ever scare us from being Norway.” Moments of crisis define and reveal. The world know sees what I have long known, that Stoltenberg is a true leader – Norway is very lucky to have him. But my relief was followed by fear. It was great he was alive, and Jens was surely the target, but there were still deaths – who were they?  Are my friends among them? I don’t know, and I hope not, but if the people I know aren’t then other good honest people have been killed. And it’s an odd feeling to hope your friends have survived while knowing that means other people’s friends haven’t.

But, as we all now know, it got so much worse. The bomber appears to have driven straight to Utoya Island where a Norwegian Labour Party summer camp was being held. Crossing by boat he appeared in a police uniform assuring attendees he was part of the security operation. He then proceeded to shoot and kill over eighty young people – beckoning some towards him, as if to safety, before executing them. The number overwhelms your senses. Three primary school classes. Seven football teams. An entire kindergarten. A generation. Gone.

For us the horror will pass. It’s numbing now, but our lives will press on. We’ll see the mourning in Norway, and follow the trial – if it comes soon enough and generates enough good material, for even our current shock and outrage may not be enough to sustain interest. The friends and families of the dead will be changed forever. This weekend they have walked through a door into an utterly, and irreversibly, changed world. In Dunblane and in Hungerford (as in Littleton Colorado, site of Columbine High, in the US) there will be those who don’t merely sympathise, they will understand as this has happened to them too. There will be healing and recovery and those who have walked this path before will offer succour.

But something has changed forever in Norway. I don’t mean the impact of the shock of death on such a scale. Stoltenberg has shown in his early words that he can heal and lead. What has gone forever is the potential of a generation – future MPs, union leaders, ministers, not to forget in due course Mums and Dads. Those of us who work in politics and love it all our lives as a passion while cursing, at times, the drudgery of the profession desperately want to see younger people joining us. The shaping of the future has to involve those who will live in it. The Norwegian Labor Party had organised a summer camp with 600 such young people. The very idea, the number, should be an inspiration to those of us struggling to engage younger talents. I can’t imagine the British Party getting over 7000 young people to a camp, though that’s the proportionate equivalent. Yet one in seven were killed. I well remember my good friend Lt-Colonel Rupert Thorneloe, w! ho himself died in Afghanistan, telling me that when he joined the Welsh Guards the impact of the sinking of the Galahad during the Falklands War was still deeply felt. He explained why. Thirty two men, an entire section of the regiment’s leadership had died and at every stage in the future their absence left a gap where talent tempered by experience should have stood. That has haunted me since as a powerful image of the permanence of loss. And it is what will now happen to the Norwegian Labour Party over the next fifty years.

Is there any consolation to be found? I honestly don’t think so. All we have is the most old-fashioned of socialist virtues – solidarity. Seeing the faces of the young Norwegian survivors I thought of my sons – 17 and 20 – and wanted to hold them close. But that’s not enough, it’s a turning in, a withdrawal. An injury to one is an injury to all was one of the great slogans of the union movement. It was a spur to action. Solidarity should spur us to action too – to work hard to make this world a better place. Because that’s not just what those young people wanted, it was what they were already working to achieve. Let that be their legacy.

 

Thoughtlines with Bob Carr

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