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'I Only Started Crying Later' Norway's Prime Minister Discusses the Utøya Massacre

The twin attacks of July 22, 2011 will remain seared in Norway's collective memory for years to come. In a SPIEGEL interview, Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg discusses the days after the attacks, his efforts to comfort the victims' families and how the Oslo bombing and the Utøya massacre have changed Norwegian society.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Prime Minister, what were you doing right when the bomb exploded in Oslo's government district on July 22?  

Stoltenberg: I was writing the speech that I intended to deliver the next day to the young socialists on Utøya. I heard an explosion and was completely unaware that something serious had happened. Seconds later, I was called by some colleagues who were in the government offices where the bomb had exploded. They asked me: "Are you wounded?" I still didn't understand what they wanted. I just sat here in my office calmly and peacefully.

SPIEGEL: Your colleagues didn't know you weren't in your government office?

Stoltenberg: Yes, I actually should have been there. But since I wanted to write the speech, I decided to stay home, where I can concentrate better.

SPIEGEL: At what point did you realize the full scale of the attack?

Stoltenberg: My colleagues told me, as they were running down the government building's 15 flights of stairs, how powerful the explosion had been. But I only really understood the totality of it when they came to me later with blood on their clothes and bandages on their faces. They were on the 15th floor when it happened. It could only have been a massive explosion, and it was clear to me that people on the lower floors must have been killed.

SPIEGEL: How did your security detail react?

Stoltenberg: They hustled me into an especially secure room here in the basement of this house.

SPIEGEL: As if a war had suddenly broken out ...

Stoltenberg: Yes, something like that. They thought that when things like that happen, it isn't limited to a single attack. I thought they were exaggerating. But then, while we were sitting in the room in the basement, we started getting the first news about the attack on the youth camp.

SPIEGEL: How were you able to form a picture of the situation there?

Stoltenberg: The news was very confusing at first. I was receiving numerous text messages from friends and party members on Utøya. The initial police estimates put the number of dead at 10. But then, survivors were calling me after their rescue, saying there was no way there could be so few.

SPIEGEL: Did you immediately see a connection between the two attacks?

Stoltenberg: That was my initial thought. And when the perpetrator was arrested at around 6:30 p.m., we were certain of it. We'd set up a crisis team here with the responsible ministers, the police and the military. After that, I gave my first press conference and visited the wounded in the hospitals, and we decided to go to bed because we had a very, very difficult day ahead of us.

SPIEGEL: Could you sleep?

Stoltenberg: No. I was already in bed, speaking on the phone, when the chief of police sent me a text message with the first number of casualties: 80 dead. I wrote him back: "Horrible." By that point, sleep was no longer conceivable. There was such an enormous feeling of sadness, and simultaneously the feeling that it couldn't really have happened.

SPIEGEL: On the following day, people watching television around the world could see how you approached relatives of the victims at a hotel near Utøya.

Stoltenberg: For me, that was the greatest moment of sorrow. You have to imagine that a list had just been read out of all those who had been rescued and were in the hospital. It was already 2 o'clock in the afternoon, and whoever didn't hear the name of their daughter or son had to assume that the chances of survival were practically nil. But even so, the families still remained strangely hopeful.

SPIEGEL: How did you find the right words for the moment?

Stoltenberg: At first, no words were necessary. One just had to be there and embrace them. Then, I told them they should hold onto the good memories of their child and that they would live forever. And then I asked them to tell me about their daughter, about their son. The shocking thing was that we were sitting in this hotel restaurant and there was one family at one table and another one at the next and, after 15 minutes with one family, I took just two steps and heard the same desperate stories. And then there was a third family and a fourth family ...

SPIEGEL: What was the demeanor of the victims' relatives?

Stoltenberg: They were simply calm. They didn't stand up or act in a formal manner as is otherwise the case when the prime minister comes. Of course, it's hard to be formal when one is crying.

SPIEGEL: Did you also cry?

Stoltenberg: Not at that moment. My job was to comfort people, to support them. I only first started crying later. I was reading the headline of the country's biggest daily newspaper, which read: "Today, We Are All Members of the Young Socialists." That's when I suddenly had to start crying. That gave me an idea of how unexpectedly people behave in an extreme situation.

SPIEGEL: At that time, you delivered a very impressive speech. Did you spend a long time preparing it?

Stoltenberg: You know, I hardly had any time to write it. I remember still working on it while sitting in the helicopter on the way to Utøya. And while I was delivering it and I listened to it -- "a cowardly attack on Norwegian citizens" -- I thought it was too strongly worded. But it turned out to be exactly right.

SPIEGEL: You constantly repeated one phrase in particular: "Norway will respond to this attack with more democracy, more openness …

Stoltenberg: … but not with naiveté!"

SPIEGEL: How could you be sure your fellow Norwegians would back these sentiments?

Stoltenberg: I couldn't. But I was very impressed to see that, already in the days after the attack, Norwegians behaved in exactly that way: They didn't allow themselves to be cowed by the violence; they didn't clam up. Of course, the aim of such an attack is to create a society that shuts itself off out of fear and is paralyzed. But that didn't happen.

SPIEGEL: Were you unsettled by the fact that the perpetrator was a Norwegian?

Stoltenberg: Of course. We might be a small country, but we still have 5 million inhabitants, 5 million individuals. But it only takes one person to hit an entire nation at its core. On Friday evening, it was already clear that the perpetrator had specifically chosen my party's youth organization as a target because it was the recruitment pool for the coming generation of politicians.

SPIEGEL: Have you asked yourself why he didn't attack you directly?

Stoltenberg: I've given it some thought. And I can't rule out that the explosion in Oslo was aimed at me. One of the victims was a close colleague from my office.

SPIEGEL: Have you come to believe that Anders Behring Breivik really did have serious political motives?

Stoltenberg: I don't know anything more than what the judges announced after he was questioned. I'm afraid we'll only grasp his true motives once the trial has started.

SPIEGEL: Do you hate Breivik?

Stoltenberg: No. I don't use those kinds of words.

SPIEGEL: Well, at any rate, you never mention him by name.

Stoltenberg: But never using his name isn't a principle or a decision. I can say his name aloud: Anders Behring Breivik.

SPIEGEL: But you don't seem to do so completely naturally, do you?

Stoltenberg: Yes, I avoid it. I don't like that he's gotten so much attention. And that's because one of his motives was exactly that: to get attention. So, I focus on the victims, on all those who lost loved ones, on those who have survived and lived through horrible things.

SPIEGEL: Do you feel politically responsible for what happened?

Stoltenberg: To begin with, there is only one person responsible for what happened, and that's the perpetrator himself. But, of course, I do bear responsibility for how the police and security forces prepare Norwegians for this kind of situation.

SPIEGEL: Had enough been done?

Stoltenberg: We've set up an independent commission tasked with finding that out. But I believe that we were well prepared in many areas. For example, the health care system coped with the emergency situation very well and reacted efficiently. Many volunteers behaved in an exemplary fashion. Take, for example, the Germans on the campground  who rescued people fleeing (the island) from the water.

SPIEGEL: Still, the police needed over half an hour to get to the scene of the crime.

Stoltenberg: That will also be investigated. We had airborne transportation capacities, but they couldn't be deployed at such short notice. We would have had to have the helicopter first come to Oslo, load up the police forces and, finally, fly to the scene of the crime. At the time, those in charge thought it would be quicker to drive to Utøya.

'I'm Proud of Our Open Society'

SPIEGEL: Still, it must be painful when relatives of the victims ask you these kinds of questions.

Stoltenberg: Let me repeat: I am the first person who wants to see these questions answered -- and for the sole reason that the victims were members of my party and my friends. I want to know whether we could have done something better, and it would be a surprise if there wasn't anything to learn from such an underhanded attack. But I'm also proud of our open society. Just imagine: When I was prime minister in 2000/2001, I didn't have any bodyguards. I lived in a normal apartment where you could have rung the doorbell at any time -- and I would have opened my door to you.

SPIEGEL: Were Norwegians really so naïve as to believe that they would never become the victims of a terror attack?

Stoltenberg: After the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the murder of Swedish Foreign Minister Anna Lindh and our deployment in Afghanistan, we bolstered our safety precautions. Now, we'll have to discuss whether more visible security measures are needed. Just keep in mind, though, that even countries that have done so have also been the victims of terror attacks. Think of Spain and its experiences with (the Basque separatist group) ETA. But, even with them, Islamist attackers were able to detonate bombs in Madrid. It's just hard to protect yourself from lone wolves, from lone perpetrators who act without a large organization in the background.

SPIEGEL: But didn't you underestimate the danger emanating from the anti-Islamic scene in your country?

Stoltenberg: We were aware of the fact that we have a potential for violence from the anti-Islamic just as much as from the Islamist camp. Right, left, Christian and Muslim terror groups have much more in common than they do with the democratic part of society. In these cases, the political motive is only secondary. We knew that these circles existed. Incidentally, we in Norway have already experienced politically motivated crimes, such as those committed by neo-Nazis. We've had racially motivated murders and an attack on a May 1 demonstration. So, if anything, we're familiar with right-wing terrorism.

SPIEGEL: Still, immigration is a rather new phenomenon in Norway. Do you believe your country's large anti-Islamic scene arose under this impression?

Stoltenberg: The image of a society that wasn't aware of the conflicts caused by immigration is a false one. We've had debates here and extreme positions on both sides. Just last summer, we arrested three people who had prepared terrorist attacks in Denmark. But we certainly weren't expecting that a white, Christian Norwegian would prepare an attack.

SPIEGEL: Wasn't it also consistent with Norwegian political correctness to remain silent about the problems of a multicultural society?

Stoltenberg: No. That is a myth that some here want to create: that it's supposedly illegal or unacceptable in Norway to have different opinions on immigration. I completely accept that there are parties with less liberal views on immigration than others.

SPIEGEL: So, in a debate of this kind, just how far can people go in terms of freely expressing their views?

Stoltenberg: I wouldn't impose any limits. But everyone has to be aware of their responsibility should they use words that trigger more conflicts, more prejudice against foreigners.

SPIEGEL: One of the justifications Breivik gave for committing his act of violence was that the government has supposedly surrendered the country to Islamists. How can you stand the fact that the Progress Party, which has the second-largest number of seats in parliament, also shares this opinion?

Stoltenberg: There's a big difference between extreme views and extremist acts. And it's legal to have extreme views. Second, I have a chance to argue against this opinion but not the right to ignore this opinion or even forbid it. Incidentally, I also believe that this would only further empower the extremists because it makes them martyrs.

SPIEGEL: Polls show that Norwegians have been calling for more security and tougher laws since the attacks. How do you intend to defend your society's openness?

Stoltenberg: Most Norwegians advocate this kind of society, and the openness between politicians and average people will remain. But we will provide more security in front of public buildings.

SPIEGEL: People abroad were very impressed by the Norwegians' level-headed reaction. Would we have seen the same reaction had Islamists carried out the attacks?

Stoltenberg: Now, I'm afraid that we wouldn't have experienced such a tolerant reaction if the perpetrator hadn't been a white assailant. On the other hand, we learned on July 22 that individuals -- and not just organizations -- can be responsible for such acts. Before that day, we couldn't imagine that a man from the rich west end of Oslo would carry out such attacks.

SPIEGEL: How long will the feeling of solidarity associated with the July 22 attacks last?

Stoltenberg: It has become part of our history, part of our identity. We won't think about it every day, but this dramatic moment will accompany us for many, many years. Still, we are already living normal lives again, and we will also experience other examples of intolerance and prejudice.

SPIEGEL: In the first election after the attacks, your Labor Party didn't do as well as some had expected. Is that a sign of a return to normalcy?

Stoltenberg: Yes, by all means. But, even so, July 22 will always be anchored in our consciousness. My party had its best results in 24 years. (Ed's note: In September's local elections, the Labor Party got 33 percent of the vote.) But it's hard to judge how much of that can be attributed to the attacks, because we don't know how the elections would have turned out otherwise.

SPIEGEL: And how long do you think you will continue to be more popular than the king?

Stoltenberg: We just had to present a budget that is very tight by Norwegian standards. As prime minister, it's also my job to confront the population with unpopular decisions. So, the king will already be overtaking me again soon.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Prime Minister, thank you for speaking with us.

Interview conducted by Martin Doerry and Gerald Traufetter.