Anders Behring Breivik’s homicidal rampage in Norway a week ago has saddened many people here and has surely led to a lot of soul-searching as Finns come to grips with the very notion that something so awful could happen to a fellow Nordic country.
The attack at Utøya also seemed to weigh heavily on the mind of my daughter, who is the same age as many of Breivik’s young victims. The question that seems to be foremost on her mind is: “Could it happen here in Finland?”
My gut response is to say, no, of course not. It’s unthinkable that such a heinous act on that scale could ever happen here. But, since I would have said the same of Norway a week ago, I guess we’re all being forced now to rethink the unthinkable.
Not that Finland hasn’t already had its share of senseless gun violence. We have the depressing distinction of having suffered through two tragic school shootings within the past four years – more than any other European country outside of Germany. And the streets of Helsinki have seen at least one car bombing (that I can recall), but that was simply a settling of scores between criminals, as if that somehow makes it less worrisome.
It’s not as if the prejudice towards immigrants that fueled Breivik’s hatred is unknown here. The stunning rise of the Perussuomalaiset (True Finns) party in the last election attests to the anti-immigrant sentiment that appears to be growing in at least certain parts of Finnish society. In fact, a prominent member of Perussuomalaiset, Jussi Halla-aho, a firebrand blogger and now a parliament member, was even quoted in the 1500-page “manifesto” that Breivik sent out just before beginning his killing spree.
The manifesto, from the fraction of it that I briefly scanned, is an impressive document. And not in a good way. Obviously, the product of an obsessive mind, the manifesto lays out, in excruciating detail, precise instructions on how to carry out the kind of atrocity that Breivik inflicted on his countrymen.
It also, as you would imagine, tries to explain his twisted world-view, which in a nutshell appears to be: native Europeans should rise up, violently if necessary, to expel all non-European immigrants, especially Muslims, in order to re-establish a continent of ethnically pure European Christians.
I can’t imagine anyone in Finland – anyone with any grounding in reality that is – sharing Breivik’s grand vision of a return to the Christendom of the Middle Ages. But some of his attitudes and sense of grievance towards his Muslim neighbors are not, I would say, especially remarkable. While many people here, maybe even most, aren’t noticeably bothered by the recent, though by European standards relatively small, influx of foreigners to Finland, it would be naïve to think others don’t view the changing demographics with emotions ranging from annoyance to anxiety to fear to outright hostility. And, of course, there can be legitimate societal concerns about some aspects of immigration, which can be debated peacefully.
But when those legitimate concerns veer off into hatred, then we should all be concerned. Despite Perussuomalaiset's strong showing in spring, I still hope the more hateful strains of xenophobia are not making major inroads in Finland. But how do we know? Under the surface, how can we be sure that some Finns don’t secretly harbor the beginnings of blind hatred? I haven’t heard anything approaching such feelings expressed by any Finns I know. On the other hand, it’s not a topic that has often come up in the past.
What I told my daughter was that there are, of course, some people who are not comfortable with immigration and the changes it brings to Finnish society, the very kind of changes that Breivik rails against. But, I hasten to add that most people, even those with the strongest anti-immigration views, are surely acting only through the political process. It is only the thankfully rare individual who lets their extreme hatred take them to the point of murdering innocent people in cold-blood.
And I believe that, though it doesn’t mean those individuals may not be out there, plotting in some isolated barn in the peaceful Finnish countryside. As Breivik demonstrated with such horrible efficiency, it only takes one person to darken the lives of dozens of families and bring sorrow to an entire nation.
I also tell my daughter that, especially after Utøya, I’m sure the police in Finland are being especially vigilant. I’m sure that more than ever before they’re on the lookout for anyone disaffected and demented enough to hatch a similar plan. At least, I hope they are. I hope we all are.
There has been a lot of talk in the media and in government in the past week about the potential threat that right-wing extremists might pose here and the changes needed to counter it. After Utøya, I hope we will all be less complacent toward extremism and that supporters of the True Finns reflect on the dangerous path their anti-immigrant platform can lead them down. They should.
So, when my daughter wondered if it could happen here, I responded with the same answer that I used to give when the kids would ask – at the beginning of our summer trips to America – whether our plane might fall from the sky. I say, “Yes, it could. But I don’t think it will.” Otherwise, how else could you carry on?