Hanna Hesjedal was in her room doing homework when news broke that a man had shot several people with a bow and arrows in her village, Kongsberg, a former mining enclave an hour and a half by train from the Norwegian capital, Oslo. “At first we thought it was a joke,” recalls the 18-year-old student, who immediately started chatting with her friends. “Like, bow and arrows? In Kongsberg? Impossible”. Then he put the television on: five dead. It was in the old quarter of the municipality, with streets where everyone knows each other and traditional wooden houses that nobody locks. The confessed murderer, Espen Andersen Brathen, 37, took advantage of that confidence to enter without any resistance and shoot several of the victims into their homes. He chose them at random. Police believe it was not a planned attack.
Although initially there was talk of the possible radicalization of the murderer, a Danish citizen who lived in Kongsberg and who claimed to have converted to Islam a few years ago, the main hypothesis handled by the police is that of mental illness. If confirmed, the massacre would have nothing to do with the one that shook the Nordic country just over 10 years ago, when a far-right Islamophobic extremist, Anders Behring Breivik, killed 77 people in a planned attack with a clear ideological component. But what happened revives the trauma of Utoya, the island where Breivik murdered most of his victims, young people from the Labor Party who were holding a summer camp. That episode deeply shocked a country unaccustomed to violent events. “The loss of innocence”, the BBC headlined one of its reports on the massacre.
A decade later, the violence has once again impacted Norwegian society, which has not yet recovered from the injuries of 2011. “Then we woke up from a kind of dream in which we believed that nothing bad could happen”, admits Ole, a retired man walking with his wife, Ingjard, near the makeshift monument that the Kongsberg residents have erected with candles and flowers in a small town square. If then the Norwegians did not believe it possible that such hatred could crystallize in the largest terrorist attack in their history, neither now do they understand how an apparently deranged man, who had shown signs of his imbalance and who had been controlled by the intelligence services, has been able to reap the lives of five people. The couple recounted that, when they saw the lights of the helicopters from their home, they feared that the same nightmare was repeating itself.
The massacre, regardless of the motives behind it, has evoked the most traumatic event in recent Norwegian history. A country that even after the Utoya tragedy was not untrustworthy. On Wednesday, after the attack, the police ordered all their officers to carry weapons. They usually don’t. Unarmed Norwegian police patrol. For decades neither the citizens nor the agents themselves have considered it necessary, according to the surveys. Neither did the politicians, who discussed it extensively after the 2011 attacks, to decide to continue as before. “But in recent years the trend has changed”, explains Anne Lise Stranden, journalist from the medium specialized in science. Forskning.no.
In 2015 a former police chief, Anders Snorheimsmoen, acknowledged in an interview that he had changed his mind. From arguing that the police should be unarmed but with easy access to weapons, he went on to believe that shootings across Europe, with hard-to-control lone wolf terrorists and other serious crimes forced officers to carry guns. The arguments for not doing so were based, among other things, on studies comparing accidental deaths and casualties by firearms in Sweden, where the police are armed, with Norway, Stranden points out in the cafeteria of the new public library in Oslo. Also in the fear that, in response, criminals will also begin to arm themselves and there will be an escalation that will lead to more victims, accidental or not.
It is still too early to know if what happened in Kongsberg brings the debate back to the present, but there are already analysts who are beginning to wonder in the media if better police preparation could have prevented the massacre. According to the account of the local police chief, Oyvind Aas, Bråthen’s first meeting with the officers occurred at 18.13. A patrol had gone to the Coop Extra supermarket after receiving an alert that there was a man there shooting with a bow. The officers were armed and fired into the air, but Bråthen attacked them and they had to retreat and call for help. They were not wearing protective gear. The man escaped through a back door. So he still hadn’t killed anyone. It took 34 minutes to catch him. He moved very fast through several streets, shooting pedestrians and entering some houses. In one he murdered a married couple.
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The police and the intelligence service, the SPT, have announced that an independent investigation will look into possible mistakes made during the arrest. The new government, which took office only hours after the massacre, will also have to assess how its health system works and whether it is properly treating people with psychiatric disorders. The prime minister, Labor Jonas Gahr Store, mentioned deficiencies in mental health services in one of his first appearances. One in four people referred to psychiatry do not receive treatment, he acknowledged. The PST confirmed that it had received notices about the killer. In 2018 he alerted the health system and concluded that there was a possibility that the man was capable of “attacking with simple means.” Tone Sofie Aglen, a well-known political commentator in the country, sums up the problem, recognized by the authorities: there are profiles “that fall into no man’s land: too healthy for the health system and too sick for the police.”
When the country recovers from the initial shock, and the investigation into the murderer’s motives progresses, the new government will have to answer the many questions that Norwegians are already asking. “Now we are in mourning,” Justice Minister Emilie Enger Mehl told MRT during a visit to Kongsberg: “We Norwegians unite when tragedies like these occur, we help each other. It’s early days, the police are still working, but I’m sure we will have things to learn from ”.
Hesjedal passes every evening through the square full of candles, flowers and messages. It is practically the only place in Kongsberg where you see people. The supermarket where it all began, with a bullet impact in the glass entrance, is still closed. Two officers in a police car guard one of the crime scenes. “We are all in shock; people are not leaving the house much, ”whispers a boy on the way to the station. The student says goodbye, they wait for her at home: “It’s very scary to think that something like this could happen in a small town. I know it can happen anywhere, but it’s hard when it’s yours. ” In the church light is seen after six in the afternoon. The parish priest has decided to leave it open all day, until late, for those who need consolation, religious or not: “Many people have come, most of them not even to talk to us, just to be silent.”
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