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Don’t Go Changing

In my wanderings around the “Interwebs”, I recently came across a video of an interview the Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg gave a few days after Anders Breivik launched his extraordinary attacks on Oslo and Utoya in the summer of 2011. In it, a visibly shaken leader of a peaceful country discussed just how this tragedy might affect his government and his people. While he said that he didn’t want his country to change, he ultimately saw himself confronted with the fact that it most likely would.

I was not far away from Oslo when the attack happened, a mere 100 miles south, vacationing with my family in a sleepy fishing village across the border on Sweden’s west coast. I remember watching in disbelief as the extent and the viciousness of the violence slowly unfolded itself on our TV screen. Swedish TV was simulcasting the original coverage by their Norwegian colleagues and tried hard to keep up with the subtitles. SVT didn’t have their own, Swedish speaking, reporter on the ground for several hours, and when one finally turned up, she happened to be an intern in one of the regional offices. All the staff reporters were on vacation. This was, after all, the middle of a beautiful summer. But the terror of violence, the despair of its victims, and the struggle of ordinary people to grasp the momentous occasion needed no translation and no expert commentary. Death and grief spoke a universal language and quite clearly expressed themselves, drawing a stark contrast to what, at least outside my window, was a bright and breezy summer day. 

The immediate reaction of Norway leaves room for hope: Joint Christian-Muslim funeral services, politicians and ordinary people alike declaring solidarity to each other with a determination to preserve the openess of their society.

The interview also reminded me of a speech George W. Bush gave shortly after 9/11. In his address to the joint session of Congress on Sept 20, 2011 he, too, expressed the desire that life in America should not fundamentally change: “I ask you to live your lives and hug your children. I know many citizens have fears tonight, and I ask you to be calm and resolute, even in the face of a continuing threat.I ask you to uphold the values of America and remember why so many have come here.We’re in a fight for our principles, and our first responsibility is to live by them. No one should be singled out for unfair treatment or unkind words because of their ethnic background or religious faith.”

I had moved to New York a little more than a year before 9/11, and had just started my second year in my MBA program at NYU when the bright late summer morning was suddenly torn apart over Manhattan. I had come to this country on the tail end of the Clinton presidency and found a society that was open and welcoming to newcomers in a way I was not accustomed to from home.

Switzerland is a rather reserved and inward-oriented society, and while many of its people have traveled extensively around the globe, newcomers integrate slowly and are often viewed with suspicion. What a contrast to when I arrived in New York, where many generations of immigrants had landed before me. People were extraordinarily good to me, helped me to figure out how things worked, how to find a job, and how to meet people. So when I heard President Bush vow that the country would not change, I felt a great sense of relief. The country’s entrepreneurial spirit and the freedom to agree and disagree with each other truly make America a special place.

Right after 9/11 the spirit of togetherness surged around America, and especially in New York. The day of the attacks I lined up outside Trinity Hospital in lower Manhattan with thousands of others looking to donate blood, A call had gone out for donations stating that with the many wounded that were expected to be brought in, existing supplies would be used up very quickly and more were urgently needed. As I could hear F-16s circling above the city, around me I heard many conversations between my neighbors on what we could do for each other and the determination emerged in many of us that we would not go on living our lives in fear. As we know now those wounded never came and our donations had to find other injured they could help. But it gave us something to do and a cause to rally around, a brief cure of sorts for the helplessness many of us felt in the face of sheer terror.

We needed more of that: A common cause that would bring us closer together, finding strength in the knowledge that those around us had our backs no matter how ugly things got out there, a platform we could rally around with the purpose of working together to strengthen our union and celebrate our freedom. The outpooring of sympathy around the world was enormeous and could have served as the cathalyst to a new era of constructive collaboration. It was America’s great opportunity to prove that it was indeed that shining city on the hill.

Yet, while New Yorkers will always be New Yorkers, the country has turned inwards and against itself over the decade that followed the attacks. Not immediately, and not abruptly, but in slow, gradual steps. It first became apparent to me with the build-up to the war in Iraq, where asking the questions “why” and “why now?” were suddenly linked to a lack of patriotism. It continued as the war dragged on, and a nation billed as the land of the free, started wrestling with having to explain why it allowed the torture of detainees, the indefinite detention without due process of some it captured, and the indiscriminate spying on its own people. The location of mosques became a political flash-point, advertising on a TV show on a perfectly assimilated muslim-American family a corporate liability. Continued attempts by terror groups to wreak havoc, a collapsing economy and an increasingly shrill political discourse didn’t help, and finally culminated in a political environment, where the indefinite detention, killing, and deportation of naturally born U.S. citizens by its government are now all measures sanctioned by existing law. Who decides what is an anti-American viewpoint? What recourse does one have to appeal such a judgement? Who watches the watchers? Home of the brave? We think so. Land of the free? We hope.

I truly hope, America can find a way to stop being afraid of its own shadow. The place I found, when I landed on its shores was a beautiful one, both in spirit and by nature. And while it clearly has lost its innocence, there is still much to admire. Communities are cropping up around the country, groups of people looking for a way to re-establish public discourse and a more open exchange of ideas for a society not built on fear of the unknowable, but on common strength they find in each other. Meanwhile, Congress is debating ways to censor the Internet, police departments around the country are beating up protesters, and politicians throw mud at each other in the upcoming election; the government once more lagging several steps behind its people.

Norway meanwhile is still working on processing the aftermath of its attacks. It, too, has received enormeous outpoorings of sympathy from around the world and its leadership has taken them in with great dignity. But like America before it, the country is struggling to balance the need for security with an open society, where there ultimately is no fail-safe defense against a skilled and determined attacker. Contrary to its customs, proceedings against Anders Breivik have occured partially shielded from public view, out of fear to help him spread his hateful message and inspire others to follow in his steps. One can hope, that his claim of him belonging to a wider network of like-minded haters is mere self-agrandisment and that the external threat to Norway’s society subsided, opening the path to a nation’s internal healing. Ultra-rightwing views, however, are on the rise in Europe, nazi sympathizers not uncommon for example in neighboring Sweden, where a steady sequence of shootings, fire attacks, and murders in the muslim community has shaken its southern-most city, Malmö, in the past year. Multi-culturalism was decleared dead last summer by non other than Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel. Despite all that, I hope that Jens Stoltenberg can find a way to preserve the spirit of his nation. The beautiful country he leads deserves no less.

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