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Oslo attacks devastating for city that has made peace a major industry

Two women are seen leaving as rescue workers arrive to evacuate the injured at the site of a powerful explosion that rocked central Oslo July 22, 2011.

Thomas Winje/Reuters/Thomas Winje/Reuters

Follow Globe and Mail correspondent Doug Saunders as he reports live from Oslo.



It would be a terrible shock in any capital, but Friday's attacks were particularly devastating in Oslo, a city that has made peace a major industry. It is, after all, only a few blocks' walk from the government square where a car bomb exploded Friday to the headquarters of the Nobel Peace Prize.

This is a quiet and orderly city built on deep foundations of order and tranquillity. It is the site of countless peace-treaty summits, UN peacekeeping initiatives and large-scale aid projects funded by the vast oil wealth of Norway, a country of five million that has around 40 murders per year - a figure that has barely changed since the Second World War.

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Beneath this surface, there are tougher undercurrents: a country that eagerly participates in military missions; that has been warned by the United States and other countries about extremist movements within its borders; and that has a small but surprisingly vocal and active extreme-right movement whose members are often furious with the government over immigration policies.

Still, it should be no surprise that Norwegians seemed stunned and inarticulate after the attack and the news that it appeared to have come from within their own community. And it shouldn't be a surprise that their Prime Minister responded not with anger and vengeance but with a call for "more openness and more democracy."

"I have a message to the person who attacked us and the people who are behind it: You're not going to destroy us," Jens Stoltenberg told a news conference shortly after the attacks. "You're not destroying our democracy and our work for a better world. We're a small country but a very proud country. No one can bomb us to be quiet. No one can shoot us to be quiet. No one can ever scare us from being Norway."

Whether the man responsible for the bombing and the mass shooting on Utoya island, described by police as a 32-year-old, blond ethnic Norwegian reportedly named Anders Behring Breivik, was a lone terrorist or a member of a larger organization, there is little doubt that his act had a political motive.

The car bomb, outside the building housing the Prime Minister's office, was clearly designed to target Mr. Stoltenberg and his government; the shooting targeted people in their teens and early twenties attending a gathering of the youth branch of Mr. Stoltenberg's centre-left Labour Party; he had been scheduled to speak on Saturday, and his famous predecessor, Gro Harlem Brundtland, had spoken there earlier in the day.

Norway's politics are considered tame enough that the Prime Minister's office has no concrete or metal security barriers outside to prevent a car-bomb from approaching. There have been warnings about jihadist groups and some far-right extremists organizing within Norway, but these were often dismissed: Norwegians didn't want to adopt the invasive surveillance policies of other countries.

But this attack seems to have come from a strain of thought in Norway, and possibly also from a circle of organizations, that are increasingly angry at the government - and especially at the Labour Party.

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The Norwegian extreme right, while representing far less than 10 per cent of the vote, is large compared with many other countries, though it is divided among many small parties that rarely get along with one another. But its adherents tend to be united around one issue: immigration, especially of minorities from Muslim countries. Mr. Stoltenberg has continued Norway's relatively tolerant policies.

It is unknown whether the alleged terrorist was a member of one of these parties. But his actions and his background appear to point to a corner of Norwegian life, one that most people prefer not to examine, that contradicts the country's peaceful image. This has been a deeply tragic moment for Norwegians - the country's largest single death toll since the Second World War - and it will likely force them to examine these unfriendly corners.

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About the Author
International-Affairs Columnist

Doug Saunders writes the Globe and Mail's international-affairs column, and also serves as the paper's online opinion and debate editor. He has been a writer with the Globe since 1995, and has extensive experience as a foreign correspondent, having run the Globe's foreign bureaus in Los Angeles and London.He was born in Hamilton, Ontario, and educated in Toronto. More

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