Norwegian Massacre: Culture, Context, and Contagion

How do we make sense of this terrible tragedy?

Posted Jul 24, 2011

I worked in Norway as an alcoholism counselor for two years, and through my work and my children, I experienced the kindness and gentleness of Norwegian culture first-hand.  It was a homogeneous culture then, now it is a state of rapid social change.

Margaret Mead's daughter Mary Catherine Bateson used the metaphor of finding a four leaf clover to describe the task of the anthropologist in understanding culture. The four leaf clover is a break in the pattern, a light discordance. You can find the clover with four leaves when you know the pattern. The recent event is a discordance in the pattern, a major and horrendous discordance.  

Norwegian culture, until recent years, was homogenous. The signature values are: togetherness (the Norwegian dictionary has dozens of words that start with sam- for together, for example, samarbeid which is to work together); equality rather than equal opportunity; and collectivism over individualism. Children come first in all things. Parents lose custody fairly easily for child abuse or neglect; there is no homework in school until the higher grades and when grades come, the worst is "a little bit good." Independence Day is a parade not of military arms but of all the school children who march with their teachers in Norway. Virtually everyone watches the parades in towns all over Norway. Teachers are addressed by their first names in the interests of equality; yet they have very high status in Norway.

So for Anders Behring Breivik to strike against children was an attack on the heart and soul of Norway. How could he have done this? How does it make sense? It is impossible to get into his head so I will look at the external factors:

1.       Social change in Norway. Diversity has come to Norway. Because Norwegians are modest about their cultural gifts, they have admitted people of different backgrounds into their country including immigrants from the Middle East; the cultural differences have led to a backlash and growth of strong anti-immigrant sentiment;

2.       The Labor Party is in power and blamed for current policies by right wing elements;

3.       The forces of globalization have come to Norway; gun corporations have flooded the world with firearms and access to violent video games;

4.       Contagion of much-publicized mass shootings from around the world lead to copycat crimes; this fact is exacerbated by the use of English as a universal language in which most Norwegians are now fluent.

It is a sad, sad day for Norway and the world as a sick mind and sick politics have come together to destroy the peace of the country that is first on the UN's human development scale and on many global indexes of the treatment of women and children. To view the best analysis of Norwegian culture watch Michael Moore's 10-minute piece on youtube, Michael Moore in Norway at This piece was removed from the film, Sicko, as it was thought to be too good to be believed. A Norwegian facebook has been set up called samles i sorgen (together in sorrow).