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“No Man Is an Island”: Reflections From Norway

Social Pathology

Social Pathology

We are spending a few days at a cottage on Vesterøy (Western Island) off the eastern shore of Oslofjord. The rainy afternoon is interrupted by the ringing of our host's mobile telephone. The woman we expect to join us from Oslo calls to postpone her arrival for a day. She reports that, moments ago, there was a huge explosion. It appears that the government buildings in Oslo have been bombed. She's tied up in traffic, and, like us, in deep shock. We do not believe such a thing could have happened in Norway, this sliver of a country “way up north of Europe”(Oslo, in the south of the country, is at 61 degrees north latitude). We switch on the television. The mobile rings again. Only five minutes have passed since the explosion. Our host's son, who is in France, rings to find out if his father is safe. He has already heard about the event from his mother, who inquired in turn about his safety from Southern Africa, where she read the news over the Internet. The time and space of the human world are contracting, despite what scientists call our expanding universe. But worse is yet to come.

We sit bolt upright and stare at the television. NRK, the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation, confirms that Regjeringskvartalet, the central government office complex in Oslo, has been severely damaged by an explosion. It was not a gas explosion, and it happened only six minutes ago, Friday afternoon, July 22, 2011, at 3:26 in the afternoon, just as employees were finishing the day's work. Initial information is piecemeal. We, like the rest of the world, register only foggy smoke, muffled flames, glass shards, sirens, blue emergency lights, passersby lying in the road bleeding. We soon learn the explosion was caused by a fertilizer bomb packed in an illegally parked vehicle. While the authorities swarm to the site to deal with the dead and wounded and the perilous condition of exploded buildings, flying documents, and smashed administrative infrastructure, and while police perimeter tapes go up around a wide swath of the city that has lost its windows, we watch the replays of the growing details, the same footage time and again: the wreckage, the police barriers, glimpses of bodies and severed limbs, smoke and crashing glass, the mobile phone photos of someone running through the wreckage calling, “Hello, anyone! Do you need help? Hey, anybody there?”

Who would do such a thing? The US networks are already blaming al-Qaeda and Islamic extremists. Indeed, within minutes, one such opportunistic Middle East terror group claims responsibility. But why would Norway be a target? Why target this little country of fewer than five million people tucked away, up there at the top of the map, above Europe? Yes, all right: through the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), Norway is in Afghanistan and is bombing Libya, and it has shown a degree of sympathy for the Danes as a result of the outrage that their provocative “Muhammad cartoons” engendered among sections of the Islamic world. But does this shift us to the top of the target list for hothead bombers from the Middle East? Norway prides itself on its peacemaking, its contributions to the United Nations' (UN) developmental and infrastructure-building programs, and the Nobel Peace Prize it awards at Oslo City Hall every December. Muslim terrorists in Oslo?

Days later, I happen to encounter immigrants from Muslim countries and other non-Aryans living in Norway. They tell me they had flashes of dread and fear as the initial news speculation came out. They girded their loins for the worst. They felt exposed, vulnerable and frustrated. One taxi driver said, “It was as though we immigrants suddenly found that public opinion had sewn the Star of David on our shirts.”

Very few Muslims – and for that matter, very few Christians – consider their own religion to be the foundation on which acts of terror are built. But in the international media today, Islam has largely replaced communism as the Great Evil. On a daily basis, terrorist acts are ascribed to Islam. In this case, however, before we had watched the screen for even two hours, the police revealed that the terrorist was not a fresh arrival from the Arabian sands. No, he hailed from the extreme right milieu of Northern Europe. The man arrested is actually an ethnic Norwegian, raised in social democratic Norway, where he has fostered his dreams of returning to the Valhalla of the Bronze Age and of the Vikings, to Medieval patriarchy and the Christian crusades of the Dark Ages.

Norwegian media began to focus on him and his actions and to take rather nuanced approaches to this national disaster, but the foreign and multinational media now seamlessly shifted gears. They might at least have paused and said, “Oops, sorry, you guys, we messed up this time. It wasn't you. Mea culpa.” But no, they do not stop to apologize. Rather, they point out that the debacle was incited by the very presence of immigrants of Islamic faith in today's Europe. It is the age-old argument that the vulnerable, by being vulnerable, are logical targets of attack. If Muslims had not had the devious, status-quo-destroying plan of immigrating to Europe, this disaster would not have happened. If Muslims had had the good sense to stay in their countries of origin, all would be well. The problems of “our” society are caused not by the injustices of human organization, but rather by the presence of foreigners, of “the other.” It is a form of thought that differs little from that of the Viking hordes of Norway 1,200 years ago, when they invaded such places as Ireland, England and Russia. If the Irish, English and Russians had had the good sense to remain dirt poor, then they would not have provoked the Vikings to invade them. In Canada, virtually the same argument is raised with regard to First Nations peoples: if they had “done something with their land,” they would not have been expropriated by Europeans, who viewed, and still view, them as standing in the way of development.

Local Muslims I encountered a week later were still aching from the injustice of the press, the knee-jerk responses of international media giants looking for good, B-grade action-thriller motives and scapegoats with whom to jazz up the news. It requires no painstaking analysis to make suspects of all who are “not like us.” I, too, am one of Norway's “in-wanderers” or immigrants. But I am not what the media in Canada would call “a visible minority.” I could stride out onto one of the picture postcards of tourist Norway without traumatizing the contented cows, the lofty mountains, the shelves of plastic trolls, the scenic fjords, dancing peasants and rosy-cheeked youth who, depending on the season, dash uphill and down dale on cross-country skis or rollerblades, singing the national anthem. I might, however, roll my eyes at their obsessive consumption of such traditionally valued Norwegian artifacts as pizza slices and Donald Duck.

Later, however, we learn that the bombing was “the act of a single madman,” an ethnic Norwegian, a so-called lone wolf. However, as the world soon learned, the bombing was only the first act of a lethal potion the “lone wolf” had been concocting with the assistance of video games and chauvinistic corners of the Internet, accessed from his computer in the bedroom of his mother's apartment.

While the emergency forces are totally occupied by his bomb blast, he now turns his back on the chaos he has created and drives west out of Oslo. A traffic jam forces him to detour such that he reaches his destination later than he expected. He stated in his “Manifesto” that he had to eliminate “the Mother of Social Democracy,” former prime minister Gro Harlem Brundtland, who was speaking to the youth at the Labour youth camp earlier in the afternoon. He arrived too late to implement this part of his plan.

The terrorist gets out of his vehicle at the shore of a landlocked fjord. He boards the Labour Party ferryboat to the Labour Party's summer youth camp. There is a tradition in Norway, in the brief summer months, wherein the political parties train and entertain their young supporters and members in camps that combine sports, social life, political discussion and outdoor living. This camp was on an island, called Utøya (“Out Island,” or “Island Out in the Fjord”), where the younger generations of Norway's social democratic movement have held summer gatherings for more than half a century. Utøya is located in Tyrifjord, less than an hour's drive from Oslo.

Dressed as a police officer, the “lone wolf” boards the Utøya ferry. He is armed with at least one automatic weapon and loaded with equipment. He explains he is coming to the island to protect the camp in the aftermath of the Oslo bombing. This Nordic Aryan with glacial eyes walks off the ferry at Utøya and begins killing all those he encounters, picking them off one by one with his automatic weapons. It is said he disabled them first with shots to the limbs if they tried to escape. Once they were disabled, he said with reptilian compassion, “Nighty night,” and was able to execute them in his own time. His ammunition was also said to be an expansive kind that is designed for big-game hunting, the type that blasts broad tunnels through flesh and bone. Victims reported that, like the Seven Dwarfs, he whistled while he worked, said “Yessss” and “Hurrah” as he pulled the trigger. They mentioned his special, cold laughter.

Early on, he shot the responsible adults, the unarmed guard (who happened to be the stepbrother of the crown princess of Norway) and Monica, the island's faithful longtime house mother. He then worked his way around the small island, shooting as many children and youth as he could. We heard later than he paused from time to time to telephone the police and explain, albeit anonymously, what he was doing. Then he resumed the slaughter. “Nighty night! Yesss!” Many jumped or dived into Tyrifjord and tried to swim away to the mainland. Once they were in the water they made slow progress. Pretty good targets. Some of the bodies had still not been recovered days later.

When, toward midnight of July 22, we broke the trance of the repetitive, painfully slow, cumulative news coverage and went to bed, the information released by the police was very tentative. They estimated eight killed and many wounded at the government offices, and at least ten killed on the island. The news we woke to the following day was that there were about 100 wounded, and the death toll now numbered 77.

The terrorist in his cop uniform was taken into custody on Utøya an hour and a half later without a struggle. (Those who are embarrassed about the cause of the killing want to divert public discussion to the police force's lack of Green Beret response and problems of reaching the scene, but to this writer, the lack of high-tech counterterror forces is simply indicative of Norway's faith in open, democratic politics – something that possibly incubated during the country's 400 years of colonial domination by its Scandinavian neighbors.)

The prisoner claimed to be a crusader against “cultural Marxism,” socialism, multiculturalism, feminism and “the Islamification of Europe.” He fancied himself the embodiment of Norwegian values, Christian values and patriarchal discipline. He had released on the Internet a manifesto of over 1,500 pages shortly before the bombing. This document was introduced by far-right self images, photos of himself as blonde and blue-eyed, then dressed as an acolyte of the Freemasons, and, finally, in a fanciful military parade uniform covered with medals he had designed himself. By attacking the government headquarters and slaughtering the Labour Party youth and those ardently promoting an open, peaceful and democratic society, he claimed to be sending a salvo out into the world, a call to arms.

What was his professed goal? To unleash a storm of blood to purify an ethnically tarnished and spiritually compromised Europe, and to do so in the hoary old spirit of the Crusades and the blood-soaked Dark Ages. He intended to visit a “final solution” on the youth of the Labour Party to punish it for policies of immigrant integration and democratic multiculturalism in politics, schools and workplaces. He hoped to set the stage for a national chauvinist “Norway for Norwegians” movement – a movement advocated by right-wing parties not only in Norway, but over much of Europe. He, like any far-right extremist, targeted the Labour Party, which is part of Norway's current ruling coalition government. Not only were his victims budding Labour politicians, they were also the coming generation of leaders of the trade unions.

A lone madman? The idea might go down in North America. Some journalists, taking their cue from the United States, equated the attacks to the actions of Timothy McVeigh in Oklahoma City. But in Europe, with its Nazi and Fascisti movements, governments and armies of the 20th century, lone gunman ideas are hard to swallow. They catch in the throat and cause the mind to vomit, because the horrors of the 1930's and 1940's have left their vibrations in the very stones that make up the venerable walls of Europe and still reverberate in the hearts and minds of today's European residents.

Across the political spectrum of the left and those in the middle of the road, there is a slogan, “Never again!” But on the side of the spectrum to the right and the far right, they try again and again to challenge this slogan. In times of economic crisis such as today, they find people willing to support their Dark Age outlook, their Nazi ideas. These ideas came to fruition in Europe in the last century. That is the reality. Will they come to fruition again? Social democracy has been an attempt, especially in the Nordic countries, to paper over, or bridge over, endemic left and right forces in society, forces that change their ratio to one another as society responds to changes in the world economy. The efforts have sought to find common interests between the state structures, the workforce and the business world, mainly through active dialogue and muted confrontation between labor and capital.

The authorities have certainly not closed their investigation into the events of July 22 in Norway, but they are tending to document the deeds as the actions of a misguided “lone wolf.” Most of us would consider this explanation to be a grave slander against the very social species canis lupus. Sociologists among us would also be skeptical about the viability of a lone wolf capable of acting outside of society, whether he be rational or insane. We are also skeptical that reality could dish up a fictional hero in the Ayn Rand mold – a rugged individualist finding succor and support solely from the steely power of his mind. The gunman had constructed a manifesto in keeping with the organizations and ideas of the far right across Europe today. It now comes to light that he stopped shooting from time to time and called in to tell the police what he was doing, then turned back to the shooting, muttering “I have to follow the plan.” The organization of his plan and his mind occurred in relation to others, not in a vacuum.

The political right in Europe has a long tradition of attacking labor, immigrants and vulnerable sections of society. Following Sunday's memorial service at Oslo's cathedral, Domkirken, on July 24, where the public filled the whole cathedral square with candles and flowers, Roar Flathen, leader of the Norwegian Federation of Trades Unions declared that these events constituted an assault not only on the values of social democracy, but on the values, gains and successes of the whole labor movement of the past century, an attack on working people everywhere, and by extension, an attack on humanity.

I am old enough to recall the reflections of sociologist Kaspar Naegele in the aftermath of the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Naegele spoke about the previous day's assassination. It was a cold, blustery 1963 November day in Vancouver. Before leading his students on a fascinating journey through the social relations of deviance, he lowered the lights and spoke softly into the microphone. “We will probably never learn the truth about this assassination,” he said, “nor will we be able to comprehend the complexity of all those individuals and interest groups implicated in this deed.”


Two days before these acts of inhumanity, we had gone to join relatives of my wife on another island further out in Oslofjord, near the border with Sweden.

Tisler is composed of peach-colored granite that wears an ochre and burnt sienna skirt of seaweed at tide level. Between the rocky outcrops, there are a few wind-sculpted miniature trees, grassy meadows, heather, berries and juniper bushes. There is a resident family of swans, hardworking shrieking gulls raising their young, swooping terns, sandpipers and oyster-catchers with their red eyes and red beaks. Herds of wiry Telemark sheep graze here in the summer months and regularly have to be chased out of the front yard. They are removed by boat to the mainland for culling and slaughter in the fall. Their warning calls punctuate the soundscape, along with the cries of seabirds. The sheep are mainly black, while others are a woolly blonde or red or grey. They all have black legs and black horns, like the strands of desiccated kelp you find at the high-tide mark along the island's shore.

Today, this island is devoted to summer recreation: sunbathing, sailing, speedboats and kayaks. There are a number of seasonal cottages, which now include the original houses of the family. A ferryboat passes every couple of hours, conveying duty-free shoppers across the mouth of Oslofjord, between Strømstad in Sweden (from where the moon rises over Tisler) and Larvik in Norway (where the moon sets).

Tisler, along with its fellow Hvaler (Whale) islands, such as Vesterøy – where, two days later at another summer cottage, we heard the cataclysmic news of the bombing and shootings – has sustained human life at least since the Bronze Age. Archaeologists tell us it is not as socially isolated as its geography might suggest.

Tante Alfa and Onkel Jakob had lived a fishing life amid the rocky hills of Tisler. They raised seven children there, four sons and three daughters. In 1939, they moved to a larger island, Kirkøy, where there was a good harbor, electricity and schooling. Tisler, however, was never lonely and isolated for those who grew up and made a living there – from the sea and from factory work in the area. While growing up on the outer island, the children were educated by itinerant teachers who would arrive by boat and stay with the handful of local families for the interval between winter storms. These teachers would give lessons to the children before moving to other islands and isolated communities. Later, they would return, weather permitting. Even after the family moved, the island was in regular use for fishing and summer residents. Also, being near the border, this was an area of particular surveillance during World War II by the German Nazis who occupied Norway.

During the years of German occupation, the four sons, Åge, Sverre, Gunnar and Jon joined the resistance movement, quietly and resourcefully ferrying refugees out of Norway and outmaneuvering German patrol boats between the islands and skerries to Sweden, and returning with fuel, food, grenades, guns, ammunition and communication orders and reports for the resistance fighters. Sometimes they were apprehended and managed to hide their cargo, either aboard their vessels on in “sea sheds” ashore on Tisler. Had they been caught … well, they were interrogated more than once, and there was always a loaded gun on the German officer's table. In 1995, their reminiscences were published as part of a book about the war years in these islands. Some months later, Gunnar came ashore on Tisler to find the handiwork of the local Fredrikstad neo-Nazis sprayed on the white exterior walls of Tante Alfa's and Onkel Jakob's house: SS symbols, the swastika and Nazi slogans. All Tisler descendants are still outraged by the offense, and that, like so much of the far-right activity in Europe, it was executed out of sight, by persons hiding their actions from local society.

Unfortunately, this is not an especially new phenomenon in Norway. In 1923, the paramilitary Samfunsvernet was initiated by those alarmed by the Russian Revolution. This organization intended to defend Norway from Bolshevism and the workers' movement. It had 10,000 members and was trained in weaponry by army officers and “responsible soldiers,” but had to disband in the 1930's when the public found it was being supplied with arms from the country's armed forces. Then, within five years, when the Nazis invaded and set up Quisling to lead a puppet government, they readily found intellectuals from the University of Oslo to support the ideology of the Third Reich. More recently, too, in the past 20 years, the University has spearheaded immigration debates that feed racism and chauvinism. (In fact, there is such a forum beginning again now, in the wake of Oslo's terror experience). Nowadays, the intellectuals are presenting views on the barbarism of immigrant culture and Islam, and are keeping a spotlight on the importance of implementing one-sided integration of immigrants, particularly Muslims, into Norwegian culture and society – with no suggestions at all that perhaps mutual adjustments should be made (as tends to happen in Canada, for example) so that the so-called majority has to move over a bit and make room for new ideas and customs.

On one hand, this one-sided integration debate from the university circles has provided a background of respectability for ongoing xenophobia about immigrants; on the other hand, social critics from the universities seldom question the national pride arising from Norway becoming an economic power in many parts of the world as a result of its oil wealth, and of its doing so in pursuit of maximum profits in the spirit of globalization. There is unquestioned pride that little Norway, so poor for so long, has now arrived in the big leagues. These are ideas and attitudes taken up by “center” and right parties in the country.

Every Man a Peece of the Continent

In the Oslo newspaper Dagsavisen on July 29, 2011, former foreign editor Erik Sagflaat wrote:

Moreover, there has been an attempt to downgrade the actions of Anders Behring Breivik as the activity of an isolated, individual madman. But Breivik has never stood alone, even if he himself was on his own in the planning and implementation. During the whole period he was able to find new sources of thought, inspiration and perseverance from among like-minded fellow-travellers. These are the arsonists who wilfully spread their bizarre ideas and their unbridled hatred – hatred that later can easily be fanned into violence and terror. Terror's arsonists are legion. We find them in organized neo-Nazi and rightwing extremist groups in Europe and North America.

The response to such statements was a deafening chorus of denial and repudiation of violence and terror from extreme right-wing anti-immigrant groups and parties around Europe, and simultaneously, a deafening level of support for Breivik's extremist ideas. In his turgid manifesto, Breivik cited ideologues from these groups and toyed with membership in some of them. “We distance ourselves from his actions. We only trade in ideas,” they said. “We don't countenance such actions. We don't organize or condone violence.”

In recent weeks, their cheers for Breivik's ideas and their distancing of themselves from his actions are becoming ritualized in the newspapers. Jacques Coutela of Le Pen's National Front in France openly applauded the Utøya action and was suspended, although his party still holds extreme chauvinist views; Laurent Ozon of the same party also praises Breivik; Mario Borghezio of Italy's Northern League, along with several ministers in Berlusconi's cabinet, think that Breivik's ideas are brilliant; Tanguy Veys of Vlaams Belang of Belgium does not like Breivik's actions but is in complete agreement with him on the need to eliminate Muslims from Europe; Werner Koenigshofer of Austria's Freedom Party has been given “a red card” by his party for his support for his statements that Muslims are thousands of times more violent than Breivik and that Europe should defend itself by re-examining the population question by ending legal abortions; Erik Hellsborn of the Swedish Democrats (“keep Sweden Swedish”) says that Breivik would not have acted if there were not a massive immigration of Muslims to Europe. Norway's Progress Party was, for a time, Breivik's political home, and some of its more outspoken members support Breivik's ideas. The former leader of the Progress Party now wants the police investigation scaled down to save money and redirect public attention to other political issues.

Others inspired Breivik directly, such as Paul Ray of the British Defence League, as well as the British National Party; Geert Wilders' Freedom Party in the Netherlands is another of Breivik's darlings. Wilders' party opposes Muslims and Turkish entry to the European Union. The Danish People's Party of Pia Kjærsgaaard wants tax cuts and an end to immigration, and Timo Soini's Real Finns is now the third-largest parliamentary party in Finland, with a xenophobic, anti-European Union agenda.

There are shadowy organizations that work underground across Europe to implement the ideas that were advanced in the past by the Nazis and the Fascisti. They do not like publicity for their violent and inhuman actions. Like the trolls of Norwegian mythology, they tend to explode when faced with the full light of day. The police are also looking into their possible connections to the Oslo terrorist.

As for the chorus of right-wing politicians abhorring violence, it is important to recall that older Europeans remember how the Nazi Party came to power through parliamentary means in Germany, abhorring – at first – the violence of their supporters, until they had consolidated power and used violence to suppress those who opposed them and their plans for creating the master race. Before political consolidation, they were only theoreticians, but afterwards, they set out to implement their policies of world domination, racial purity and class elimination. Our anthropological friend Mike Seltzer – another immigrant to Norway – has drawn an important analogy. Scandinavian feminists, he recalls, argued eloquently that child pornography is theory or ideology that finds its social practice as child sex abuse. The present terrorist case is analogous. The far-right chauvinist and racist groups use their web sites, cultural events, Facebook, Twitter and murky chat rooms to rant and rave in anonymity. As such, they provide the theory. Here all sorts of Medieval knights and iron cross heroes can call for Armageddon or a return to the Third Reich; they can spread their dreams of Valhalla and the Crusades – as well as the liquidation of Muslims from Europe. The practice that arises from this theory is carried out by the world's Breiviks and their backroom boys, their megalomania, their threats, gang wars, arms dealings and networks of discord.

The response put forward by the Norwegian government and the surviving youth from Utøya is centered on opening the windows and shedding more light on those who dwell in the shadows. They want to build an even more open and inclusive society, with more open discussion, where people of all persuasions seize the courage to stand in public and defend their views in order to make the future more democratic. One section of the public is determined to support this view. The youth have declared that they will take Utøya back, and the process is beginning by a symbolic return now, within a month of the killings. There is also another trend in society that wants to focus on the shortcoming of the anti-terror preparations of the police. The contradiction is, if anti-terror had been higher on the Norwegian agenda, the killings may have been less extensive, but on the other hand, the open, democratic society based on a relatively high degree of responsibility and trust between the people and their authorities would probably have been much diminished. It takes courage to trust one another in a world ruled by fear, but Norway is a society that still has much of that trust. In the month that has passed, both the Labour Party and the far-right groups report an upsurge in applications for membership.

We, along with well over 200,000 others, filed into Oslo's harbor-fronted city hall square on Monday, July 25, for a memorial gathering that was started on Facebook. This assembly was addressed by, among others, Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg and Crown Prince Haakon (named for his great grandfather, the wartime king). People came by the thousands, packing the shoreline and access roads in front of the city hall. Crowds backed up in all directions. Almost everyone carried long-stemmed roses; others had wildflowers. The crowd waved their roses overhead, and when I raised up on tiptoe, I saw one vast blossoming garden spreading in all directions. It was repeated on the television screens: a vast garden of determination to rebuild the trust, the caring and the openness of Norwegian society. Around us there were people from all social strata and from various political persuasions and residential areas; there were youth, infants, elders. Not only the city's churches, but also its mosques had urged parishioners to attend, and as we rode the metro into the city, we encountered people of all faiths boarding the train with their long-stemmed roses and exiting at the National Theatre stop, which is closest to the city hall.

The song sung by the crowd was not, as reported on the BBC, “religious hymns”; it was Nordahl Grieg's poem “To the Youth,” written by the ardent writer, playwright, seaman, socialist, supporter of the Soviet Union and anti-fascist. He wrote it in 1936 in relation to the Spanish Civil War. An ardent fighter of fascism, Grieg was eventually shot down over Berlin in December 1943. “To the Youth,” subsequently set to music and played daily at the Utøya summer camp down through the generations, begins by asking the youth to:

go forth in their time,
facing the bloody storm,
asking what they should fight for,
and what should be their weapon.
The answer the poet gives is as follows:
that which shields the youth from violence
that which identifies their sword is simply faith in human life,
the precious value of humanity.
War is contempt for life.
Deceit must be smashed in the name of life.
It ends by declaring injustice shall crash and fall! Sunshine, bread and the spirit belong to us all!

Islands Again

We have been teaching in East Africa during the last three or four years. In breaks from our duties, we have had the chance to visit a number of fabled islands off the coasts of Africa. We visited Lamu up against the border to Somalia, Zanzibar and Madagascar in the Indian Ocean; Robben Island in the Southern Ocean; and St. Helena in the South Atlantic. Throughout colonial history, islands have been used as prisons due to their watery isolation. As the youth found on Utøya, it is not easy to escape from an island. On the other hand, all these islands have a dynamic human history. Their inhabitants have not lived alone in isolation from the greater world. On St. Helena, for instance, we heard “hurtin' music,” especially Patsy Klein, coming from an open window of a house on the hill above Napoleon's grave. It was Christmas, and the lone reindeer in flashing lights on a rooftop was accompanied by a blinking camel and a flashing lion. We learned that most men – who, during the colonial era, were brought in from all corners of the earth – work for the British armed forces and have been stationed in almost as many places as their mix of ancestors came from. All the islands we visited while we worked in Africa have memories of trade, conquest, settlement, incarceration and a desire to fight for freedom from oppression.

For many years, even after the demise of Onkel Jakob and Tante Alfa, we used to see a huge iron cauldron sitting on legs and perched upon a skråning of granite beside the family house on Tisler Island. On washing day, Tante Alfa would build a fire underneath the cauldron and boil water that she had hauled in buckets from the well in the meadow. I have stood on that rock and looked out toward Sweden on one side and the Norwegian islands and mainland on the other. I have often wondered if Aunt Alfa, on a breezy summer day in the 1940's – back on the island for the summer season – from this little promontory, ever strung up her washing from guy wires above this rock and used its presence, or the order in which the clothes were hung, as a code with which to signal her husband and sons about the movements of the German Nazi patrol boats during World War II. (The Nazis held Norway captive from April 1940 until May 1945.) She might have. She was a courageous and cheerful woman.

Her four sons used their everyday movements as fishermen to take resistance politicians and civilian refugees aboard their boats and run them to neutral Sweden, especially in the dark winter nights when the Germans, unfamiliar with the rocks and shoals and skerries, were afraid to venture out on patrol. Tisler, just like those islands we visited off the coast of Africa, played its role in the world and in history. When it comes to freedom and building a better world, no community is an island unto itself. Just as no man is an island, in human terms, no island is really an island either.

I like to stand on the spot where Tante Alfa did her washing. Seabirds bicker and cry overhead; the ewes call their young; the diesel motors of the tax-free ferryboat provide a throbbing heartbeat to the scene as it passes and fades from hearing. Islands are just as good for meditation today as they were centuries ago for John Donne, the English poet, jurist and bon vivant. In 1624, Donne wrote, in his “Meditation 17”:

No man is an iland, intire of it selfe; every man is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine; if a clod bee washed away by the Sea, Europe is the lesse, as well as if a Promontorie were, as well as if a Mannor of thy friends or of thine owne were; any mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee….

There are no more lone madmen causing terror than there are island communities unto themselves. We are connected, more and more as human history unfolds. Oslo, on July 22, 2011, did not see the actions of a lone madman, but rather, a complex of actions and actors who are part of the dichotomy of post-World War II Europe. They remain opaque for the time being. As Naegele pointed out half a century ago, we may never know all those who are implicated. Perhaps these events will help bring social and political discussion and debate out of the cobwebs of anonymity, out from cyberspace and into the sunshine, into the public square, where political visions can be forged openly, in relation to one another, where they might invigorate social engagement and a more democratic society. We have to keep our eyes on that sunshine and that human sea of long-stemmed roses. With today's technology, the deceit, darkness and isolation Grieg wrote about can indeed be “smashed in the name of life.” And indeed, “injustice shall crash and fall.” The message can reach right around the world in seconds. No matter which island we stand on, anyone's death diminishes us because, whether or not we acknowledge the fact, we, like Donne, are involved in the safeguarding and cultivating of human kind.

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