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Conversation: Norwegian Author Anne Holt on the Lessons of Oslo

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The flag of Norway flag flies at a memorial outside the Oslo Cathedral in honor of the 76 victims of the July 22 attacks. Photo by Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP/Getty Images.

On July 22, Anders Behring Breivik perpetrated two of the worst acts of violence in the history of Norway. The 32-year-old, who has admitted to the acts, detonated a car bomb in downtown Oslo, killing eight, and went on a shooting rampage at a political youth camp on the island of Utoya. Sixty-eight people died there, and some are still missing.

Earlier Friday, I got the view of the situation from a Norwegian writer. Anne Holt is one of Scandinavia’s most successful crime writers, but she’s also had quite a career before that.

Anne HoltHolt began her career in the Oslo police department before founding her own law firm. Later, she served as Norway’s minister for justice in the late 1990s. Her first book was published in 1993. Her two series — the Hanne Wilhelmsen series and the Vik/Stubo series — have sold more than 4 million copies and have been translated into 25 languages.

I spoke to her from her summer home outside Oslo:

A transcript is after the jump.

JEFFREY BROWN: Welcome once again to Art Beat. I’m Jeffrey Brown. Today we talk more about the tragedy in Norway, but we get the view of a writer. Anne Holt is one of Scandinavia’s most successful crime writers, but she’s also had quite a career before that as a lawyer, journalist and Norway’s minister of justice. She joins us now from outside Oslo. Welcome to you.

ANNE HOLT: Thank you very much.

JEFFREY BROWN: Could you start with an update just on where things stand in terms of the investigation as you see it. Where are things now?

ANNE HOLT: Of course, the technical investigation of an attack of this scale will obviously take quite awhile, but when it comes to what we consider the ordinary investigation, well this isn’t the hardest job the Norwegian police have had because of the fact that the perpetrator is already caught and we know exactly what he did and we know the fatal consequences of it.

JEFFREY BROWN: Of course, he claimed right away that he was not acting alone or he had some help out there. I guess it’s still in question. Do you think of him as a lone crazy man or as representing something else?

ANNE HOLT: Both. I think he’s lying, and most commentators think that he is lying. He’s talking about other Norwegian cells. He has been talking about cooperating with British groups. I don’t think that the police actually believe in this, but of course they have to look into it. When it comes to his opinions and his ideology, he is certainly not alone in Norway, and that is maybe one of the greatest tragedies of this terrorist attack.

JEFFREY BROWN: You wrote a very interesting piece in the Wall Street Journal that I read, and you said, he’s not like the rest of us but he’s actually one of us. Now tell an outside audience, what does that mean?

ANNE HOLT: He is one of us. I mean, he is Norwegian. He grew up in one of the richest countries in the world with all the privileges that comes with such a position and such a birth. He could have been a successful business man, whatever he wanted. Something went wrong. We don’t know what yet. But he is one of us. On the other hand, he is not one of us, because, I sincerely hope and I sincerely think, that hopefully no other Norwegian would go to this type of action. But the fact remains that his opinions and everything that he has been writing on the Internet, before July 22, are opinions shared with maybe 200,000 or 300,000 other Norwegians.

JEFFREY BROWN: And how much do those opinions explain to us the balance here of non-violent political action or opinion-making versus the violent or potentially violent kind? In other words, how strong do you see this extremism in the country now in its different forms?

ANNE HOLT: Fortunately, this last week we have stood up as one united country, and fortunately this was not an Islamic attack, because now we can unite in this one opinion. Everybody agrees upon one thing: These kinds of violent acts are totally unacceptable. But that is almost the only thing we agree about, because when it comes to immigration, when it comes to views on Islam and Muslims in Norway, because we have quite a few Muslims in Norway, the political tone, the public speeches, the political parties’ way of dealing with this has been becoming harsher and harsher for the last 10 or 15 years. We do stand in front of a very considerable amount of debate and discussion. Where do we go from now? What do we do with the fact that he was the one who did the terrorism? And then he has to carry the responsibility for the terrorist act alone, but what about the other people? The politicians? The people around in Norway who have been carrying his exact same ideology for so many years? I think that each and every one of us has to go in ourselves, into our own soul and say, what is my responsibility in this? What can I learn from this? And what can I change in my way to prevent this from happening once again?

JEFFREY BROWN: I also want to ask you about your profession now of writing and especially crime writing, which has had such boom there and here and around the world. It’s interesting to think that a lot of that is based on these very sorts of tension, right? That we are talking about within Norway and Scandinavia?

ANNE HOLT: Only two years ago I wrote a book that actually is published in English, and it’s called “Fear Not,” where I try to explore exactly the same issue as we now have to face, the line or the connection between spoken hatred and physical hatred. I really tried in that book to point to the fact that freedom of speech is also a question about responsibility for what we say and how we act. These are issues that most Scandinavian crime writers have been very preoccupied by for many, many years.

JEFFREY BROWN: But do you, finally, think that all of this is going to implications for changing the society, for the way police act, for the way security forces act with better intelligence? Does that inevitably change the society?

ANNE HOLT: I hope not. I hope that the prime minister is right when he says that we are not going to meet this act of hatred with hatred or more security or less openness in society. If you ever can talk about a nation having soul, the Norwegian soul is egality, openness and a very low security level. I think that we have lost some of our greatest values if we really have to change these things. It’s too early to say, but I sincerely hope that we won’t have to do that.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. Writer Anne Holt talking to us from her home just outside Oslo. Thanks so much for talking to us.

ANNE HOLT: Thank you so much.

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