Last Friday, the world was stunned by an unthinkable tragedy in a beautiful and quiet country:
I considered writing a post about it that day, and the day after, and so on. But my words failed me. What do you say about something so unnecessary, so heartbreaking?
Twenty-one years ago, my brother married a beautiful Norwegian, Siri. After their son was born five years later, they decided to permanently make their home near her close-knit family in Norway. Two years later, their daughter was born. As much as I’ve hated having them so far away, it has given me the opportunity to learn and explore a country I otherwise would likely never know. In all, I estimate I’ve spent nearly five months in Norway, and hope to go back in May for my niece’s confirmation. It is a breathtaking land, and holds a very deep place in my heart.
I am ashamed to admit that I’m a little … desensitized … by violence in America. Don’t misunderstand – I love this country, and I am deeply saddened when I hear of a school shooting or gang violence or threats made to a recruitment center. I am not cold to violence here; I am just not terribly surprised. But I was shocked by what happened in Norway. It just did not fit with the image I had of this pristine and open country.
Of course, I realize how naive that makes me sound. No one country is perfectly safe. There is no culture without its dark side. There is no society without its extremists or sociopaths. But this kind of mass killing …nothing like it has ever happened in Norway. Ever.
I felt like a child whose eyes were opened to the ways of the world. Again. It really shook me up. And I don’t think I was alone in that feeling.
But then …
I also don’t think this is a sign that the world is getting more dangerous, or that people are somehow more evil than they used to be. As I’ve grown older, I’ve caught myself sounding more and more like a crochety old man: “this world is going to hell in a handbasket,” “our government is ruining this country,” “kids these days – they have no respect for anyone…” I admit, there is a lot of scary news out there, and I find myself focusing on all the problems of the world. But I don’t think things are actually getting worse. Maybe it’s just that I am nostalgic for the times of yore.
But I have to remind myself that the perfect little world of the 1950s was overshadowed by the threat of the Soviet Union and duck and cover drills, and the fun, hippy, free-love 1960s were stained by the blood of young soldiers and a growing divide over the war. The 1980s, the beloved, idealized decade of my childhood, saw mass starvation and debt crises across the developing world and a plane blown up over Scotland. Going back further, people have faced the Crusades and the Black Plague, the coal-blackened skies of the Industrial Revolution, and slavery. Much of the struggles we faced then remain, but it is easy to forget that those who came before us also struggled.
At a time when truly unimaginable horrors were being carried out every day, Anne Frank wrote, “It’s really a wonder that I haven’t dropped all my ideals, because they seem so absurd and impossible to carry out. Yet I keep them, because in spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart.” Like most American students, I read her diary sometime in middle school. It was poignant and fascinating, but I couldn’t really grasp how amazing that statement was in light of what she was facing. But I think of it now, I thought of it in 2001 and during Katrina. And I thought about it last Friday.
A lone 32 year old with hatred in his heart brought heart-wrenching tragedy to his own country. And the country responded by coming together and declaring it would not let this one act harden them. They would remain an open and peaceful society. They would not open the floodgates of personal weapons and panic. They would strive to embrace each other and all cultures. As the Prime Minister of Norway, Jens Stoltenberg, said last week:
“The response to violence is more democracy, more openness, and greater political participation.”