In 2011, Norway faced a mass murder event that was unparalleled in recent history. One man – Anders Breivik – traveled to Utoya Island (just off Norway’s coast), gunned down 77 people and wounded 200 others. The worst part of the tragedy is that the victims were primarily teens, who were on Utoya participating in a youth camp.
Since that horrible July day, three artists have been selected by a Norwegian committee to erect memorials to the victims. One artist, Jonas Dahlberg, has proposed something quite controversial: “Memory Wound,” which will slice through the Sørbråten peninsula across from the island, where Breivik committed the shooting.
However, while Norway’s art council is on board with the proposed project, the nearby residents of Hole Township have sued to stop it. They state that they’re against the memorial because having a monument in perpetual view will “harm their mental health.” And the reason that this particular community is offended is because they were the first responders. Many of them witnessed the terrible tragedy first-hand.
This is an interesting twist in an already tragic story, and brings to mind the intense debate that raged after the 9/11 memorial was set to open its doors. When it finally did, in 2014, the criticism spread worldwide due to the $24 admission charge to the tasteless gift shop that was installed. But perhaps the biggest slap in the face to survivors’ families was the separate part of the museum that holds the remains of over 8,000 unidentified victims. Rather than being able to bury their loved ones, they would now be required to fork over a fee to pay their respects.
Of course, the United States does not have a Ministry of Culture; thus, our memorials are not funded by the Government. So the fees (and maybe even the gift shop) are potentially forgivable. The question of unidentified human remains is more troubling…
Regardless, there are some striking similarities between the citizen first-responders in Norway and the victims’ families in New York. Neither group wants to be slapped in the face with the memory of what was possibly the worst day of their lives. They don’t want to see the fountains, the engraved granite, or the unnatural swath cut through the landscape every time they leave their homes in an attempt to “get on with it.” They want to be able to forget, if even for a little while, the horror of 9/11 and July 22nd, 2011.
But, what those smaller and more poignantly affected groups probably can’t appreciate is that the memorials – by and large – are not really meant for them. While every attempt is made to honor them, the true purpose of the memorials are to comfort the masses. They are erected to mourn the dead, but also to provide something tangible to the thousands…millions… of us who watched helplessly from our living rooms. We stared in shock at the horror unfolding before our eyes, helpless to do anything. As the seconds turned to minutes, we gaped in terrified realization that this really was happening.
When replay after terrible replay aired on every news station, we cried and held each other in a moment of mass grief and unity that only occurs in response to tragedies like these. For the people of Norway – just like the people of the US ten years before – there is a longing for “closure.” There is an aching need for a tangible place we can go to in order to make some sense out of what we witnessed, but could not stop. We want to find a quiet space to read the names and let the victims know that they were not alone. Our hearts were there in those final moments with them – and we hope they are at peace.
In your opinion, is it better to respect the wishes of those closest to the tragedy, or to erect the memorials?
by Åsne Seierstad [Farrar, Straus and Giroux]
by Erika Doss [University of Chicago Press]
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