Friday, July 29, 2011

The Unthinkable

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?  

Monday, July 25, 2011


We are still reeling from the horror of the attacks in Oslo and Utoya this week.  The thought that someone could slaughter innocent young people in such a mechanical cold-blooded manner, it is truly beyond belief.  And the fact that it happened in calm, sleepy Norway added to the shock.  It hits close to home to think that a peaceful Nordic country, much Finland itself, could be the site of such an outrage. 

Our hearts go out to families of the victims and, in fact, to all of Norway.  I can’t imagine the grief they are experiencing right now, especially knowing that it was brought about by one of their own, apparently a lone right-wing extremist. 

Early on, when it was “just” a car bombing, it was completely plausible to suspect it was the work of some international terrorist group, though Oslo doesn’t seem the most obvious target for such an attack.  While the events were still unfolding, the Norwegian foreign minister, speaking to the BBC, however cautioned against jumping to the conclusion that the perpetrators were Islamic jihadists.  He was wise to do so, and we can only wish others in the public space (journalists and bloggers) would have exercised the same kind of fair-mindedness. 

At news of the attacks, the American conservative blogger and Tea Party firebrand, Erick Erickson, immediately tweeted:  “Terrorist bombing in Oslo.  I bet you it was not Lutherans who did it.” 

Though he was not exactly unique in making that assumption, something about his tweet struck me as especially smug.  The next day in his blog, he admitted he was wrong.  But he also objected to criticism he received for his swift judgment, and then took the media to task for insisting on identifying Anders Breivik as a “conservative Christian”. 

I’m not quite sure why he found this so objectionable (he explains it in the blog, but I’m not sure I understand it), and I think he might be missing the point.  I think that the media, by emphasizing Breivik’s religion, weren’t trying to paint Christians with the brush of terrorism, but rather were attempting to counterbalance their initial speculations that al-Qaeda was behind the killings and discourage the kind of prejudice that might lead to knee-jerk reactions against Muslims in Norway.  And by “reaction”, I don’t mean violence.  I can’t imagine that someone in Norway would have retaliated violently against the Muslim community there – but, then again, three days ago I would not have imagined that anyone in Norway would have hunted down and shot nearly 100 happy young people. 

Interestingly enough, two days before the massacre in Norway, the state of Texas put to death a local man who went on a shooting spree of blind vengeance after the terror attacks of 9/11. 

In September 2011, white supremacist Mark Stroman set out to kill “Arabs” in the Dallas area and ended up murdering a Pakistani Muslim and an Indian Hindu.  He also wounded a third man.  None was Arabic, of course, and none had anything to do with the attacks in New York and Washington. 

The sole survivor of Stroman’s shootings, a Bangladeshi Muslim named Rais Bhuiyan, campaigned unsuccessfully for clemency for Stroman.  In pleading that his attacker, who he has forgiven, should not be executed for his crimes, Bhuiyan has said, “In order to live in a better and peaceful world, we need to break the cycle of hate and violence.” 

To which I – though not able to call myself a Christian  can only add “Amen”.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Desperate Politicians

As an American living abroad, I probably see the political goings on in the States differently than I would if I lived there.  Hopefully, that means viewing current events with a lot less of the “noise” that surrounds everything Congress or the President does.  Take, for example, the time Congress saw fit to rename the French fries served in its lunchrooms.  In the wisdom of Congress, the deep-fried potato slices, introduced to America by Francophile Thomas Jefferson, were rechristened “Freedom Fries” - a provocative demonstration, if there ever was one, of America's anger over the gall of our Gallic friends not to get hopelessly bogged down in a senseless war. 

I recall at the time being embarrassed for my countrymen and thinking how idiotic this must have looked to everyone outside the States (and to be fair, also to a great many people living there). 

And here we are again.  The drama playing out now in Washington over the debt ceiling looks to me, far from the onslaught of 24-hour cable news, maybe even more bizarre than Americans must find it.  I would hate to try to explain it to any of my Finnish friends curious enough to ask what it’s all about (thankfully, no one has). 

Here we have the Republican-controled house threatening not to honor the debts incurred by the budget that they approved a few months before.  That is, not without concessions from Obama on further reductions in …  Wait a moment.

Maybe it’s best to think of it all as a scene from TV, like something from a popular Hollywood sitcom set in an idealized American neighborhood of lovely homes and likeable characters who come together weekly to deal with their whacky, but entertaining, problems.  Consider, if you will, Tom and Lynette, two all-American suburbanites who have just had their kitchen completely redone: 

*   *   *    *    *

Tom and Lynette, with mugs of fresh coffee, are sitting across the counter from each other in their newly renovated kitchen, going through a stack of bills. 

“Tom, these are coming due soon,” Lynette says, pointing to the invoices.  “And we’re about to run out of cash.  We need to talk to the bank about getting that loan.”

Looking serious, Tom hesitates a bit before speaking.  “Ah, yeah, about that, Lynette.  I’ve decided we’re not going to take out the loan after all.  Not before we cut back on spending.”

Lynette is dumbfounded.  “Why not?  You know we have great credit with the bank.  They’re happy to loan us the money.”

“No, we owe too much already.”

“Which we don’t have to pay back for years.” 

“No, Lynette.  We’re spending way too much as it is.  And, you know, things have been slow at the pizza restaurant.  We don’t have enough money coming in.  We can’t keep this up.  You’re going to have to cut back on everything.” 

“Food?  Clothes?  Gas?”


“The kids’ college fund.”

“Yep, even that.”

“Tom, be reasonable.  What if I took a job?  The ad agency has been begging me to come back and freelance for them.  And it's good money.”

“No, Lynette.  More income is not what we need.”

Lynette gives Tom a puzzled look.  “Come again?”

“Don’t you see, Lynette?” Tom lowers his voice, squeezing her hand.  “We can do this by living more, you know, more simply.  We don’t need two cars.  We don’t need to eat steak every week.  We don’t need to buy …”

“New golf clubs?”

“Let’s not go overboard here.”

“And, if I don’t cut back?”

Tom slaps his hand on the stack of bills between them.  “Then we don’t pay these.”

Lynette’s mouth drops.  “Tom, if we don’t pay these bills, our credit is ruined.  We’ll never get another loan.”

Tom shrugs his shoulders, “So be it.”

Lynette gives Tom a look.  “Wait a minute, am I talking to Tom or Eric?”

Tom smiles slyly.  “It might be Eric.”

You see, Tom is not a well man.  He suffers from multiple personalities that often battle with each other over big family decisions.  “Eric” is his brash, reckless personality. 

Lynette breathes a sigh of relief.  “Okay, can I talk to Tom now?”

“What about John?” says Tom, referring to the more mature, slightly more reasonable personality that briefly inhabits his mind. 

“Okay, sure.  John, what do you think about this?”

“Well, maybe you could do some work for the ad agency,” “John” answers in raspy, smoky voice.  “I guess we could use the extra money.  But we still have to cut back some.” 

“I can live with that.”

But, suddenly “Eric” is back.  “Hell, no!” he shouts.  “I’ll let us default before I let you go back to work.”

“And we’ll be ruined!” Lynette protests.

Suddenly Tom’s voice takes a shrill, high-pitched tone.  This is his “Sarah” personality.  “No so fast, there,” he says.  “Thought you could pull one over on me, didn’t ya?  It’s just a lie that we’ll be ruined.  You’re just making stuff up to try to scare me.”

Before Lynette can say another word, Tom’s voice changes once again.  “I think I have a way out.”

Lynette cocks her head to one side.  “Mitch?” she asks, referring to the name of Tom’s drab but scheming personality. 

“That’s right.  I think we could agree that you go ahead and get the bank loan, if you want.  It’s up to you.”

“And I don’t have to cut back on expenses?”

“Not if you don’t want to.  That’s up to you.”

“And you’re okay with this?”

Tom smiles.  “As long as I don’t get blamed for it later.”

Lynette raises her eyebrows.  “Huh.”

*   *   *    *    *

I only wish that following the real debt ceiling fight were this easy.  To see how this amazing bit of political theater finally does play out, please stay tuned for the gripping final episode, due to air on August 2nd, at the latest.  Depending on how it all turns out, a special presentation of “The Great Recession, Part II” may air immediately afterward.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Summer break

I’ve been taking a long break from blogging, mostly due to some holiday travels with the family and a home renovation project that’s keeping us busier than usual for this time of the year.  Our family vacation this summer was a walking holiday in the Italian Alps and a very abbreviated Midsummer celebration in Finland, which I hope to write about in future posts.  But for now, I’m just happy to be enjoying a glorious Finnish summer. 

I never really knew how to appreciate summer until I moved here.  In fact, the last few years I lived in Georgia I had grown to hate summer – it was way too hot and way too long – and I couldn’t wait for the first crisp mornings of autumn. 

Here in Finland, I can’t get enough of the season.  By definition, it can’t get too hot here for my taste.  I say that, though to be honest we were sweltering a bit last week when temperatures soared to nearly 30 degrees (about 85 F).  We don’t have air conditioning in our house and only one tiny table fan, so on those few really hot days (by Finnish standards, that is), we have to rely on cross ventilation.  That’s usually enough, though it was so hot last week that, even with all the doors and windows open wide, it started to get sweaty inside.  The only thing that helped were occasional trips to the basement to cool off. 

But those days are rare here, and this year we were also lucky enough to avoid the other, darker, side of Finnish summers – the nonstop rainsqualls that can last for days.  Fortunately, we were in Italy the week in June that the Finnish summer decided to take a nasty and wet detour.  Other than that, Helsinki has been experiencing an exceptionally fine summer.  In fact, while rain showers and even thunderstorms have hit other parts of the country, Helsinki has been by-passed completely, and it’s actually become a bit too dry here. 

As someone who grew up in the southern US, I find it quaint how much attention gets paid to the few thunderstorms that do occur in Finland.  Unlike Georgia, where there can be almost daily storms in summer, Helsinki gets maybe only half a dozen thunderstorms in the whole season.  (My daughter and I were caught out in one of those while kayaking last summer.) 

It’s true that, lying on the coast as it does, Helsinki has more moderate weather than the Finnish interior.  Still, nowhere in the country do you experience anything like the kind of violent weather that often rakes across parts of the US, especially in spring.  And Finns should be thankful for that.  So far this year, at least 15 Georgian have died in severe thunderstorms and tornadoes.  A relative living in my home town recently found a piece of paper from the town of Piedmont – 135 kilometers away in neighboring Alabama – that was carried and deposited by the storms that swept through southern states on April 27th killing over 300 people.  Nothing like that happens here in the calm climate of Finland. 

Even when a Finnish thunderstorm does form, it’s a much more sedate affair.  Back in Georgia, a typical day in high summer often starts out clear, hot and humid, with the heat building up until by afternoon towering thunderheads loom above.  Then a storm lets loose with some serious thunder and lighting, and everything cools down until the next day. 

In Finland, this same cycle can also take place during the hottest part of summer, but in slow motion.  Here we’ll sometimes have three or four days of non-stop hot and sunny weather that eventually results in a whole day of more-or-less stormy, at least rainy, weather followed by a few cooler, cloudy days before clear skies return.  Compared to Georgia storms, it’s plain boring. 

Still, as much as I enjoy watching the spectacular displays of lighting that we often have back in Georgia, when you consider the tragedy that sometimes comes along with it, I guess I can’t complain about boring, and never-too-hot, summers in Finland – as long as there’s plenty of sunshine.