Norway attacks intensify political resolve of many youths
The sandy-haired young man runs his finger over an orange wristband with the word “Utoya,” a leftover ID bracelet from the Labor Party youth camp where 68 people, mostly teenage activists, were gunned down last week.
“I can’t take it off,” Vegard Groslie Wennesland says softly, seated at a cafe in central Oslo where broken glass was still being cleared from the separate car bombing that terrorism suspect Anders Behring Breivik also admits to committing.
Tragedy is transforming the lives of young Norwegians — and in many cases, such as that of the 27-year-old Workers’ Youth League member, strengthening their resolve.
A week ago, Wennesland’s biggest worry was completing a University of Oslo master’s thesis on Palestinian refugees in Lebanon and then, perhaps, taking a jaunt around the Middle East to practice his Arabic.
Now, after seeing friends shot point-blank in the head and hiding under a cabin bunk until the massacre was over, Wennesland has put his graduation plans on hold and spends his days consoling traumatized members of the youth league. He’s vice chairman of the Oslo chapter; the chairman is among the presumed dead.
Norway’s deadliest peace-time attack has traumatized the nation, but is taking a particular toll on the young, the primary targets and disproportionate victims of the attacks. Photo spreads of the dead being published in newspapers unintentionally evoke the look of high-school yearbooks — bright smiles, often accompanied by pimpled faces or spiked hairdos.
In the short-term, the violence appears to have motivated many young Norwegians. Youth parties, both liberal and conservative, are reporting membership surges. Even the Progress Party, which Breivik joined as a youth and later quit in frustration, reported that 30 new members have signed up since Friday.
The interest marks an abrupt shift — in recent years political participation and voter turnout had waned among the young. Now many are expecting record voter turnout during the next nationwide youth election in September.
In Norway, student elections occur on high school and college campuses as they do in the U.S. But here, they are partisan contests in which the nation’s leading political parties compete for the youth vote. The polls are seen as an important breeding ground — as are political summer camps such as the one on Utoya — for the nation’s future political leaders.
Beyond the firsthand horror experienced by the nearly 700 youths at the camp — unprecedented political violence in a nation where crime-related gun deaths are rare — the massacre may shape the views of an entire generation, influencing politics, priorities and fears for decades to come.
“It’s something that will impact their world assumptions, their view of life, their feeling that the world is basically safe and that human beings are good,” said Tine Jensen, a child psychologist at the Norwegian Center for Violence and Traumatic Stress Studies. “They will never forget.”
Jensen points to the massive vigils, memorials and stories of ordinary heroes risking their lives to save others as positive lessons, strengthening the national unity of young Norwegians, who have responded with solidarity and defiance.
“You can’t change the event, but you can try to counteract it in the aftermath,” Jensen said. “When we see how Norway has responded, with flowers and people helping each other, it may actually end up enhancing the sense of cohesiveness and humanity.”
Jensen, whose center is drawing upon the experiences of the Sept. 11 attacks and on decades of gun violence in Los Angeles, said the trauma for Norway is particularly intense. That’s because young people here have so little direct experience with violence and because Breivik reportedly told police he intentionally targeted the left-leaning youth retreat, believing he could decimate the future leadership of the liberal Labor Party he despised.
Breivik, who police say has admitted to committing both attacks but has pleaded not guilty, made clear in his pre-rampage writings that he had Norway’s youth in his sights. His 1,500-page manifesto claimed the first phase of an anti-Islamic revolution would be the formation of “cultural conservative patriotic youth movements,” which would serve as the “backbone” of a right-wing resistance movement.
Wennesland said he’s committed to ensuring that Breivik’s intentions to crush the Labor Party are not fulfilled.
“Then he wins, and no one in Norway wants him to win,” he said. “Those of us left are going to be stronger. We will be tighter. The shared experience will tone down the differences that we’ve had inside the Labor Party for a considerable amount of time. So yes, this will affect us to a great extent, and I think it will mostly be positive.”
In an ultimate act of defiance, Wennesland vowed the youth group will return to Utoya next year for its annual retreat.
“The values and ideals that were attacked Friday will prevail,” he said.
Havard Narum, a political columnist for Norway’s Aftenposten newspaper, said he expects the Labor Party to enjoy a short-term boost as a gesture of sympathy. In recent years, the Labor Party — historically the dominant party among Norway’s young — has been losing support to right-leaning rivals, such as the Conservative Party and the Progress Party.
Breivik may have succeeded in drawing attention to his anti-immigration views, Narum said, but his tactics may have made the climate too sensitive for right-wing parties to even raise the issue in the foreseeable future.
The long-term political impact of the attacks remains unclear. “But one way or another, I believe this will have consequences for the whole political climate for quite a long time,” Narum said.
As the identities of more victims are released and funerals take place nationwide, parents are also grappling with how to answer their younger children’s questions and ease their fears.
“My son keeps asking me, ‘Why?’” said Anita Kleemp, 48, an unemployed mother, standing next to her 5-year-old boy in downtown Oslo. “But I really don’t know what to tell him.”
She said she thinks it’s nonetheless crucial to discuss the tragedy with her youngster. On Monday, she brought him to the downtown Oslo bombing site to observe a national moment of silence. Later, they stood in front of the courthouse and waited for a chance to see Breivik being driven to his initial closed-door judicial hearing.
“I wanted my son to see that [Breivik’s] in jail so he won’t be afraid,” Kleemp said. “But also I just thought we should be here. It’s part of the Norway experience. I want him to remember.”
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