Living in Oslo during the past few years, I passed the government buildings downtown almost every day. I lived right up the road from them, only a five-minute walk; they were my gateway to downtown Oslo. Very often, when I looked over at these structures in which, I knew, the prime minister and all of the cabinet ministries had their offices, I shook my head in wonder at the utter lack of visible security. Almost never did I see a single armed — or even unarmed — guard. (The only exceptions were on the rare occasion when a blizzard of foreign flags and a motorcade parked on the sidewalk indicated that some president or prime minister was visiting from abroad.)
This lack of security was certainly not unusual for Norway, where the police don't carry guns, and where the very idea of police carrying guns is widely looked upon as some holdover from an earlier stage of human evolution. But — hello — in front of the main office buildings of a Western European government? After 9/11? It seemed sheer madness. In recent weeks, passing grim-faced soldiers with machine guns at Amsterdam airport, and then outside the New York Stock Exchange, I thought immediately of those vulnerable-looking government buildings in Oslo.
When I first heard the news of the explosions at those buildings, my first thought, of course, was that it was a jihadist attack. But it wasn't: it was a right-wing lunatic. It wasn't jihad. It was a meaningless killing spree by a madman, like the ones at Columbine and Virginia Tech. A headline in one Norwegian newspaper today noted that the death toll in Oslo and at Utøya yesterday was higher than at Columbine and Virginia Tech combined. The Norwegian media have always reported on mass murders by lone gunmen in the U.S. as if they were things that could never happen in Norway: rather, they were symptoms of a sick society that Norwegians could never possibly understand. In Norway, they use the term "amerikanske tilstander" — American conditions. It never means anything good. Yesterday's nightmare, from a Norwegian perspective, was the most American of American conditions.