The Brightest Beacon: Reflections on the Tragedy in Norway

July 29th, 2011

On September 11, 2001, I was in London. The television images of massive destruction and certain death were no less real for being an ocean away. My wife, departing that morning but turned back to London in mid flight, could not grasp what she was hearing until she, too, saw the falling towers of the World Trade Center and the hole blown into the Pentagon and learned of the flight that went down in Pennsylvania.

The next day John Keegan, my favorite historian of World War II, had a piece in the Daily Telegraphspeculating on the things America would do in reaction. Religious tolerance would be sacrificed to the necessity for security. Educational opportunities would be restricted for Muslims. Freedom of movement might be limited for whole classes of people. I wrote a rejoinder to Keegan, published two days later also in the Telegraph, arguing that if these things happened the terrorists would be the winners. In the months and years that followed, flawed leadership did cause America to make mistakes. Abu Ghraib, water boarding and Guantanamo remain scars on our national character. But by far, most Americans did not turn to intolerance. There was and is a core of decency and respect for others that remains evident across this land.

My heart, like that of many Americans, goes out to the people of Norway. We share the grief of your nation in the loss of life of government officials and tragically compounded in the loss of so many young people. Already politically sensitive, they had across their 76 individual skills and personalities more than 3,000 years of cumulative contributions to make to their country and their world. Among them were future doctors, scientists, engineers, business leaders, parliamentarians, perhaps a prime minister, perhaps even a Nobel Prize winner in his or her own right. The snuffing out of such promising lives is so senseless. Nearly every family will be touched directly or through acquaintances by this horrible act.

Norway’s tragedy will lead some to question the openness of the society. But it is that very openness that is the country’s greatest strength. Norway is the most liberal democracy in the world, it has the most transparent economy in the world, and it enjoys the highest standard of living in the world. I respectfully suggest that these characteristics of the society are not coincidental, but rather, complementary. They work together to give Norway, that is a country with a small population, an outsized influence on the world stage. Norway is looked up to as having gotten right the balance between the government and the people, the necessary kinship between freedom and prosperity.

Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg is setting the right tone. This experience will not undermine the country’s democracy, nor its values, nor its commitment to a better world.

From afar, Norway is regarded by many as the brightest beacon among nation-states. Grieve, yes, and never forget this loss, but keep that brilliant beacon shining for all humankind.


This article was originally published in The Huffington Post on 29 July 2011

Written by Raymond Baker

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