by Arnold “Skip” Isaacs

Two days after an anti-Islamic, anti-immigrant fanatic named Anders Behring Breivik murdered 77 people in Oslo and on Utøya Island in an act of xenophobic terror, Norway’s Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg gave his country’s answer. “We are still shaken by what hit us,” Stoltenberg declared in a six-minute address to a packed Sunday service in the Oslo Cathedral, “but we will never give up on our values. Our answer is more democracy, more openness and more humanity.”

The message to Norwegians and the world, as Police Superintendent Asbjørn Rachlew expresses it, was that “Norway tomorrow will be recognizable” — that is, that the same country and society that existed before the attacks would continue to exist afterward, with the same beliefs in democratic political institutions, the rule of law, human rights, and principles of justice and fairness.

The cathedral where Stoltenberg spoke had become a central stage for that response even before that Sunday service. Standing only a short walk from the heavily damaged government buildings in central Oslo where Breivik began his attack by detonating a powerful bomb, the cathedral was within the security zone sealed off behind police barricades immediately after the explosion. It remained closed for the rest of that Friday afternoon and overnight. But early Saturday morning the authorities allowed the church to reopen, as a place where people could gather to find solidarity, share their shock and grief, and seek comfort in communal mourning. The city government and the police also designated a large area outside the cathedral where people could light candles or place flowers in memory of the victims. As in other European countries, religious practice has diminished in Norwegian society, but after the shock of the terror attacks, inherited tradition and the church’s historic role as a communal gathering place made the cathedral a meaningful center for the expression of public feeling. People began to pour into the area almost immediately, and continued to arrive in large numbers for several weeks.

Indicating the massive response, “during the first weekend after July 22 every shop in central Oslo was empty of candles,” Olav Dag Hauge, dean of the cathedral, recalled. During the first couple of weeks, estimates are that “more than 1 million candles must have been lit,” Hauge added, and that the city government removed no less than three tons of flowers from the cathedral square. Similar demonstrations were held in other public spaces, such as a huge gathering on the square in front of Oslo’s City Hall on the fourth day after the attacks. A news photograph of that event shows the square packed with people, almost all of them with an arm raised holding a single red rose, so the scene looks like a vast garden of roses growing out of a sea of faces. That and many similar images became the visual emblem of Norway’s response to terror, illustrations for the narrative of a country affirming humane values in the face of an inhuman act of violence.


That narrative was the theme for an examination by the Academy of Critical Incident Analysis, as part of its ongoing effort to study and learn from events that challenge the public life of the communities or whole countries where they take place. A critical incident may have the capacity to damage the social fabric, weakening public trust and deepening fault lines between groups or between populations and governments or other public institutions. But critical incidents can also strengthen social bonds and communal identity and values. In those cases, even if the incident itself was tragic, the aftermath can be a positive event. As an earlier ACIA case study suggested, that was the case in the Virginia Tech University community following the 2007 mass shooting there. Norway after the July 22, 2011, attacks was apparently another example.

To explore the Norwegian response, ACIA sent a study delegation to Oslo in April, 2012. The visit gave team members an opportunity to observe sessions of Breivik’s trial, which was then in progress. They also toured Utøya Island, where Breivik carried out the second act of his crime, shooting and killing 69 people, most of them teenagers, at a youth camp affiliated with Norway’s Labour Party. Breivik targeted the camp because it was associated with the liberal, multicultural values he was driven to attack.

Following the study tour, ACIA held its case conference on the Norway attacks on October 3-5 at John Jay College. Among participants invited from Norway were Laila Gustavsen, a Labour Party member of the Norwegian parliament, and her daughter, Marte Gustavsen Odegarden, who was shot and seriously wounded at Utøya but survived. Others attending from Norway were Dean Hauge of the Oslo Cathedral; psychologist Renate Bugge of the Center for Crisis Psychology, who coordinated group gatherings for bereaved families and other programs to give emotional support to survivors; journalist Trond Idas, representative in Norway of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma; and Kjetil Stormark, also a journalist and the author of two books relating to the terror attacks. In addition, ACIA invited speakers for a panel on several mass shootings in the United States, at Virginia Tech, Columbine High School, and the Amish school at Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania, where a gunman killed five young girls in October, 2006.

The following month in a separate event at John Jay, Asbjørn Rachlew and Geir-Egil Løken of the Norwegian Police spoke at one of a series of seminars supported by a grant from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Rachlew, a police superintendent at the Oslo Police District, and Løken, a chief inspector in the Criminal Investigation Department, were intimately involved in the questioning of Breivik, Rachlew as adviser to the interviewing team and Løken as one of the interviewers who questioned Breivik over a seven-month period between his arrest and his trial. Their appearance at John Jay was not connected to ACIA’s case study, but their subject was obviously relevant and with their permission, their presentations are included in — and greatly enrich — this report. ACIA gratefully acknowledges their cooperation.

Appended to the report are excerpts from the report of the 22 July Commission, issued in August 2012 after a year-long study of the events of July 22 and what they revealed about Norway’s security and emergency preparedness systems, which the commissioners bluntly concluded should have prevented the bombing in Oslo and could have saved lives on Utøya if police had responded more effectively.

            NOTE: In the text that follows, speakers’ words in some passages have been edited or rearranged for greater clarity or to avoid repetition or confusing or extraneous matter. This has been done, however, with the greatest possible care to preserve not only the speakers’ exact meaning but the tone and feeling of their remarks.