22/7/11 – on heroism, leadership and cowardice

I have just listened to a most remarkable radio documentary – the helpers – an NRK production detailing the experiences and thoughts of one family who were thrown into the drama of July 22. The family consists of a septuagenarian couple – Mother and Father – and their Daughter and Son in Law.

The program starts with the voice of a girl, a survivor, who relates her struggle to identify the helpers who had rowed across the fiord to the island, found her, carried her (she had been shot and injured in her leg) to the boat, and rowed back to the main land, to the safety of their cabin, where they sheltered her, clothed her, warmed her and comforted her. The same family had sheltered other kids who had managed to swim across the fiord from Utøya to the main land. The kids found a safe haven in the warm embrace of this extraordinary family. Eventually the girl managed to identify her saviors, to thank them for saving her life, and also the lives of 20 other kids. The girl even apologized for having interrupted the family’s dinner, even feeling guilty for invading their privacy.

The remainder of the program gives us an insiders view into the tragedy. The Mother relates how, prior to the tragedy that struck on July 22, she had enjoyed a lovely day, the fiord and the quiet landscape. She tells that as she was starting to prepare for dinner, she turned on the news to hear about the bomb in Oslo. Distressed by this, she and her family were focusing all their attention on this drama, when after a while they started to hear loud pops from Utøya. At first they thought that the Utøya youth were sending up fireworks, something they found very strange, given the drama that unfolded in Oslo. Soon however, a young boy landed on their door steps, weak, cold, exhausted, traumatized and frightened. “They are shooting at us over at Utøya”, he cried, “help us”. He was too weak to manage to climb the stairs, so the family carried him indoors. Soon another few kids, equally traumatized, appeared on their lawn, they too were carried inside, so frozen, so desperate, so traumatized.

The Mother tells how she at first felt totally overwhelmed, but then her motherhood instincts kicked in, and she mothered them, getting them out of their wet and cold clothes, finding something dry and warm for them, towels, blankets, old morning robes, anything. She prepared hot drinks for them – one kid was too traumatized to manage to swallow, even when Mother tried to spoon feed him hot tea, he was unable to swallow. Some of the kids were desperate and wanted to hide in the cellar – Mother put her foot down, telling the frightened child in front of her that there was no need to hide in the cellar, that they were safe and that she would protect them and look after them.

The Son in Law tells how, before the first boy had appeared on their front lawn, before they knew about the shooting, they had seen how MS Torbjørn, the boat that ferries people across to the island, all of a sudden sailed outwards from the island, away from the main land, away from the island, something that had never happened before. He recalls he thought this was very strange. We now know that it was the leader of AUF who used the boat to escape, together with a handful of other men.

He then goes on to relate how – after the first desperate kids appeared and told about the shooting, got his boat out and started to row across the fiord. Many other boats were on the water by now, and many of the kids who were trying to swim away from the nightmare that was taking place on the island were frightened by the motor boats, thinking they carried more terrorists who came to kill them. The rowing boat appeared much safer, and they started to lift kids on board. Rowing back, leaving the kids in safety there, his wife, the Daughter, had prepared another boat, a motor boat, she had kitted it with life wests and whatever else needed, and the two now jetted across the fiord to the island to try to save the kids there. They landed at a particularly rocky and difficult area, and struggled to anchor up the boat and get on the island. There were many bodies lying in the edge of the water.

He then tells about a young boy, a survivor, who in the middle of dead and injured friends, tried to organize the rescue effort to get survivors into boats. Can you imagine the colossal mental strength and absolute solidarity of this young man, no doubt traumatized, frightened, yet he had the wherewithal to care for his comrades, to try and organize the efforts to save the ones who were injured but alive? Isn’t this the stuff good leaders are made of?

The Daughter then relates how she normally is a squeamish person. Easily frightened by the smallest things. She says: “if somebody would have suggested that I should sail out to an island where shooting is going on, to save kids, I would have told them that they are crazy.” Yet, in spite of her own admitted fearfulness, she did just that, she got up, without hesitation, putting herself in mortal danger to save lives, even adventuring a bit inlands on the island to see if there were other kids she could save. Her Husband too, the Son in Law, selflessly put himself in a very dangerous situation, negotiating the boat, the waves, the sharp cliffs, lifting injured bodies into his boat, shooting still going on, the deceitful waters around the island adding a huge effort to his already difficult task. Isn’t this the stuff heroes are made of? People who transcend their own limitations in the service of others?

All of these people – the young girl who, in spite of her injuries and trauma, put so much effort into identifying and locating her saviors, only a few days after this terrible drama – to thank them; the couple in their late 70s who with warmth and love sheltered the youth as they were brought into safety, the Daughter and the Son in Law who defied their own fears and limitations and put themselves in great danger to save the youths; the young boy who tried to organize the rescue efforts while standing amid dead and badly injured comrades – are shining examples that great crises bring the best out in people. For their selflessness, their decency, solidarity, courage and humility – they tower tall above the rest of us.

And they offer a shattering contrast to the AUF leader who simply got on board a boat – the only boat, the one that could have saved many more lives – and sailed away. Not towards the main land to warn others of the terrible drama going on, to get off the ferry so that others could use it in the rescue efforts. No. In his disturbed mind, he thought the terror attack was a coup d’Etat, and that the Norwegian secret police, even the Mossad, were after him. Hence, he and his mates decided to sail out-fiord, to bring themselves, but nobody else, into safety.

In interviews given after the event, and confronted with this fact, he has steadfastly maintained that people react differently under distress, that he and his mates reacted on pure instinct,  and that he cannot change the history. There is a remarkable lack of introspection, of self criticism, where he would acknowledge his enormous failure in being a leader, and to take responsibility for the kids who were under his care. He has not even reflected on his failure to trust in our Norwegian, democratic and Law abiding institutions – no, he threw all of that away, like a headless chicken – yet he has not even contemplated the possibility that all of these failures make him utterly unsuitable as a leader and that he should step down from his leadership of the Labour Youth Organization. In stead he behaves like a feather plucked peacock and struts his miserable stuff for royals and plebeians.

Isn’t this the stuff cowards are made of?

(PS: on listening to the program again, I realize I have made an error. I thought that the 4 persons who spoke in the documentary, were all in the same family, This is a mistake. Therefore, it is the Mother who relates how her own daughter and son in law rowed across the fiord to pick up kids who were swimming across. The persons I have called Daughter and Son in Law are in reality an unrelated couple, but they did nevertheless not hesitate to get into their motor boat and jet across the fiord to pick up survivors while ABB still was on the island killing kids. I apologize for the confusion, I would not want to detract from any of the heroic efforts of these 6 people, among many other equally heroic people on other boats, who were thrown into the dreadful events of that day).