I don’t know a lot about Anders Brevik. But what I do know is enough to send a cold shiver down my spine. In writing this blog, I normally try to give a professional slant on important world events, but this one feels personal because Utoya Island was an attack on everything we hold dear. Those children were our kids, our hopes, our future and our aspirations.
How could he do it? Brevik shakes my unshakeable belief that somewhere inside each of us is our common humanity. Thus, “If only he had help earlier, if only someone had noticed, if only someone had loved him” and so on. I have to believe this otherwise I have to accept the some people are simply beyond help.
I would rather take the focus away from Brevik and ask how we as a society should react to such horrors. I find healing in the remarks of the Norwegian Prime Minister: “Our response is more democracy, more openness and more humanity”.
A society in shock, anger and trauma may be tempted into a knee-jerk response, more security, stricter laws and a erosion of liberties. This is a convenient bandwagon for the intolerant and enemies of the open society. Going down this road implies that we are at fault, if society was (ironically) more like the one Brevik seeks – intolerant, controlled, racially pure – all would be fine.
There is no return from the path of vengeance and in revenge we become like those we seek to punish and control. This applies on an individual level and for societies as a whole. The muscle of openness, caring, mutual respect and appreciation is a subtle one. The muscle of restriction, punishment and vengeance diminishes who we are. It takes strength to be “open”, to hold on to values that are strong but necessarily diffuse, which represent a way of being rather than a rigid code of behaviour. They are never so severely challenged as on Utoya Island, 9/11 and the London bombings. At these times we ask ourselves the most difficult questions about our individual and collective values and we are tested.
We have to find a way of shouting from the rooftops that the way of openness, co-existence and appreciation of difference is the only way forward. Please read Tom Chivers brilliant article in the Daily Express (Aug 25th 2012) which explores this in depth. He quotes Benjamin Franklin: “Those who would give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety”.
In our giving up of liberty and political freedoms the bombers and the Breviks get their reward and inch closer to achieving their aims. An open, accepting society is not rigid, it is not fearful of difference but embraces it as part of being human. It is from fear that we demonise those we do not understand and we find our identity in reacting against.
Maybe the key to Brevik is not that he ignored his humanity but that he did not even know it was there? The lesson for the rest of us is to hold on to our humanity at all costs in all its manifestations – anger, fear, shame, hurt, joy and happiness. These experiences are part of the makeup of each of us, in different proportions at different times. They make us who we are. I welcome that with all the challenges it brings and reject the simplicity of rejecting the parts of us and of life that we find difficult and scary to accept.