'Today, we are all Norwegian'

Reflections on political terror and the Scandinavian experience in the Northwest.

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The ruins of the World Trade Center

Reflections on political terror and the Scandinavian experience in the Northwest.

A Facebook post has become an anthem of the chin-scratching class from Beijing to Ballard: I dag er vi alle Norske. "Today, we are all Norwegian."

The scale of Anders Behring Breivik's political terror is extraordinary. Even among Lutheran existentialists, violence is not suppose to be visited upon the innocent, and God is never so jarringly absent.

For Norwegian Americans, expressions of solidarity kindle feelings of both grief and ethnic hubris. Really, we are all Norwegian? We all rank first on the Human Development Index and produce above-average children? Oh, you wish you were Norwegian.

Scandinavian immigrants changed the cultural landscape of the Northwest, transplanting a tradition of political progressivism, fair play, and trade unionism. There might even be a link, however tenuous, between Norse immigrants and the Northwest's appetite for clean, ponderous, process-heavy government. For a time, along with Swedes and Germans, Norwegians were the vanguard of Washington's post-colonial settlers. The Norse were weaned and influenced by the Jante Law, a sense not that everyone is equal per se, just that no one is better than anyone else. Suck it up. Don't be a braggart and accept life on life's terms.

My paternal grandparents were part of the great Norwegian diaspora which, unlike other ethnic dispersals, never quite made sense. There was no political or economic disaster to flee. My grandparents received the promotional brochures brandishing the American West, and they bit. They discovered a near-identical climate and a land that blended nature with labor. After a time, they happened upon Our Savior's Lutheran Church in Everett and the stolid Rev. Karl Norgaard, who conducted his sermons in Norwegian. For them, the Pacific Northwest was Norway, only more so.

Like the Irish, the Chinese, the Italians, and other immigrant communities, Norwegian-Americans have an emotive link to their ancestral home. That's why the ripples from Anders Behring Breivik's terror radiate with such force.

As a child I devoured Claire Sterling's book, The Terror Network. Sterling was able to document the vast organizational web that knit together the IRA, the PLO, Germany's Baader-Meinhof gang, Italy's Red Brigades, and other disparate 1970s-era radical groups. Commandos trained together and learned the fundamentals of asymmetrical warfare. Here's how to manufacture a car bomb. Here's how to hijack a commercial airliner.

In the aftermath of 9/11, Sterling's book reminded me of the difference between mass political violence — of violence with an ideological agenda, which 9/11 was — and the violence of a lone, apolitical actor. It's one of the reasons why the expression "The War on Terror" makes as little sense as "The War on Fertilizer Bombs."

In brief, Anders Behring Breivik's mass shooting and bombing represent xenophobic political violence. Breivik had a strategic and instrumental purpose: To foster panic and to murder future leaders of Norway's Labor party. Period. The "madman" explanation is a cop out.

Books such as Ian Buruma's Murder in Amsterdam regarding Theo van Gogh's killing illustrate how Scandinavia and Northern Europe are riven by ethnic and sectarian tensions. Breivik stands on the unsteady shoulders of Pim Fortuyn, Vidkun Quisling, and other master-race reactionaries. If there's an American analog to Breivik it's Nidal Malik Hasan, the Fort Hood shooter. So forget the riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma version. Political violence is what it is: it has the power to inflame, diminish, or unite a people.

Here's the takeaway: Breivik does not appear to be a mentally ill rebel without a cause. He is a political actor with a political agenda committed to mass political violence. It's a horror narrative that would have repelled Sweden's Igmar Bergman, who in his films explored God's silence and the mystery of death. No, this is Costa-Gavras territory, an admixture of violence and politics and society.

Americans understand both narratives. Today, we are all Norwegian. We always were.

There will be a vigil, starting at 6 pm, this Tuesday night at the Nordic Heritage Museum, with honorary Norwegian counsul Kim Nesselquist attending.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Peter Jackson

Peter Jackson

Peter Jackson is the former editorial-page editor of the Everett Herald. Follow him on Twitter @phardinjackson