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Remembering Terrorism: The Case of Norway

As terrorism scholars, we are intrigued by those who engage in violence. We study their motivations, tactics, ideology, organisational structures, and pathways to (de-)mobilisation, hoping to better understand terrorism and how we can counter it. Far less attention is paid to what happens after an attack has taken place.

Jeanine de Roy van Zuijdewijn MA
30 September 2019

Terrorist attacks are means to an end; the responses to terrorism determine the impact attacks might have on societies. One way to better understand the impact of terrorism is by studying how societies deal with memories of terrorist attacks. This Perspective looks into the case of Norway following the attacks by Anders Behring Breivik on July 22, 2011. What can we learn about the societal responses to terrorism from how Norway commemorates the attacks and deals with the locations where these attacks have taken place? This perspective discusses the memorialisation process in Norway and then zooms in on a visit of the author to the island of Utøya in June 2019 in order to provide a more close-up look of how the members of the Workers’ Youth League (AUF) have found their own ways to deal with the attacks. 

The attacks

On July 22, 2011, just before 15:30, Breivik parked a van outside the office of Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg in the governmental quarter of Oslo. Minutes after he had walked away, the van exploded, killing 8 people in its vicinity. Breivik then drove 35 km to the quay facing the small island of Utøya. Dressed as a policeman, he boarded the ferry, claiming to be there to protect the Workers’ Youth League (AUF) which had gathered on the island for their annual Summer camp. In the 72 minutes that followed, Breivik killed 69 of the 564 people on the island, 33 of them younger than 18 years old. The case of commemorating the attacks in Norway is extraordinary as it includes a location that is very public, situated in the heart of Oslo, and a location that is privately owned and literally disconnected from the mainland. The nature of the locations determines the range of possible and desirable commemoration modes.

It has become somewhat of an unwritten cultural norm that countries construct memorials to commemorate terrorist attacks. The National September 11 Memorial & Museum in New York is perhaps the largest and most well-known example, but other recent monuments include the Atocha station memorial in Madrid and the 7 July Memorial in Hyde Park in London. The process of deciding on whether to establish a permanent memorial and subsequently on its design often leads to political and sensitive discussions.

This has also been the case in Norway. Months after the attack, the Norwegian government decided that three national memorial sites would be established: one at Utøya and two in Oslo which included one temporary and one permanent memorial. The government launched an international competition for the design of those sites which was won by Swedish artist Jonas Dahlberg in 2014. Dalhberg’s proposal included a physical cut through the mainland, in the village of Sørbråten, facing Utøya and a permanent memorial site, an amphitheater, in the city of Oslo. It was the first proposal of cutting the land and making a 3.5 meter gap that predominantly attracted attention. Dahlberg explained that it was meant to symbolise a “poetic rupture”. The jury of the competition stated that “the void that is created evokes the sense of sudden loss combined with the long-term missing and remembrance of those who perished. The proposal is radical and brave, and evokes the tragic events in a physical and direct manner”. The memorials were planned to be unveiled a year later, on July 22, 2015.

Read the publication on the website of ICCT

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