As we approach the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, I can’t help but wonder if we in the United States could have acted differently. Could we have responded with something other than fear, uber-patriotism, military invasions, and domestic crackdowns? Could we have responded with community, openness, and tolerance plus smart strategic moves that made us safer without feeding the cycle of death?
I wasn’t sure what might be possible at a national level until I learned of Norway’s response to their terrorist’s attack of July 22. That gave me a glimpse of a different way.
I learned of Norway’s response from my friend, Jacob Bomann-Larsen, an advisor to the Norwegian government. I had emailed him my condolences shortly after the attacks. His reply, telling me of what had been happening in Norway, brought me to tears.
The terrorist’s bomb struck right in the heart of Oslo, destroying the building of the prime minister and his staff and damaging several other government buildings. That bombing killed 8 people and injured 89. On the island of Utoya, the terrorist killed 69 more and injured 62—mostly teenagers who were attending a summer camp for young members of the Labor Party.
The bomber’s palpable threat to the central government could have caused a major crackdown, prompting terrorist alerts everywhere and draconian measures to ensure the tragedy was not repeated. Government leaders could have focused on the threat and kept the country in a mood of fear. Instead, prime minister Jens Stoltenberg adopted as his mantra what a young girl said after the tragedy: “If one person can create so much hatred, think of how much love we can all create together.”
Jacob wrote of the message the Norwegians spread to the world: “Our answer will not be hate and revenge, but more openness, more tolerance, and more democracy.” In Oslo, just three days after the shootings, close to 200,000 people gathered in the streets for a flower ceremony and many more held ceremonies in cities and towns across the country. The Crown Prince declared “Today our streets are filled with love.”
Jacob wrote, “It was like the politicians from all the eight main political parties realized that that their disagreements were of minor significance. We have a common enemy to fight—hate, revenge, and intolerance. Our answer shall be love, openness, tolerance, democracy—and roses.”
The Norwegian response reminded me of some of the initial responses to 9/11 that I wrote about in YES! Magazine several weeks after the attack. People set up altars, gathered in groups. Interest in learning about Islam spiked. Polls showed an enhanced focus on family, community, and authenticity. Well known figures such as Rosa Parks, Martin Sheen, Harry Belafonte, Gloria Steinem, Danny Glover, and Bonnie Raitt signed a petition entitled “Justice Not Vengeance,” launched by YES! Magazine and the Institute for Policy Studies shortly after the attack. The petition urged the pursuit of justice for the perpetrators, not a military response.
But the U.S. government’s preparations for war, its color-coded terror alerts, the Patriot Act, the new Homeland Security Department, and constant reminders of the threats to our nation soon drowned out the spirit of openness and community. Images of war filled our daily newscasts for years to come.
Norway has managed to sustain its choice for openness and tolerance. If they had been attacked by an international network of foreigners, rather than an ethnic Norwegian, would that still be the case? We don’t know.
What we do know is that we humans are a choice-making species. When we are attacked, we are not inevitably destined to lash out violently. We can choose to respond differently.
My hope, as we observe the 10th anniversary of 9/11, is that in any future attack, we will have learned the folly of an aggressive military response. That we will pursue smart security strategies and professional international police work. And that we can be as courageous as our friends in Norway, responding with love, openness, tolerance, democracy—and roses.