It is inevitable that, in times of crisis, a nation's character is tested, and national identity defined. Nowhere in the world have we recently witnessed the strength of having a well- defined, well-understood definition of national identity than that of Norway following the recent extremist violence.
It is unfortunate that a nation's mettle is so often put to the test in the worst of moments. In these past two weeks Norway has been the focus of understandably intense scrutiny, and as is typical, the tragic events have been coopted as a means to talk about issues ranging from immigration reform and religious tolerance to gun control and the rise of the European far right.
Reactions like this -- specifically, the tendency to project one's own interests onto emotionally engaging issues taking place somewhere else -- is human nature, entirely legitimate, and bound to happen when something awful happens in the world. This tragedy, however, has also focused attention on something that Norway has done very well -- albeit quietly -- in the past two decades: its government and citizens have continued to embody a clearly understood and defined concept of Norwegian national identity.
The immediate reaction of Norway's government, royal family and civil leaders was an indication of Norway's fundamental understanding of itself as a nation, and, whether conscious or not, it was an example of the power and efficacy of a clearly understood national "brand."
Coupled with the sad and gruesome images of mayhem's aftermath was Norway's Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg walking amongst Norwegian citizenry and reassuring them that the country would, in his words, "stand firm in defending our values" and an "open, tolerant and inclusive society." He added, "The Norwegian response to violence is more democracy, more openness and greater political participation." These statements, taken out of context, could function well as a definition of the Norwegian national identity itself: Norway is an open, tolerant and inclusive society.
The power of a well -defined national "brand" is in its authenticity. If a country says it stands for peace, and yet wages war, the brand is only a prop. Not so with Norway. What was especially affecting with regard to Norway's recent public displays in the last two weeks is the strength, unity and quiet dignity of the Norwegian citizenry, and the resolve of its leadership. The nation of Norway, from the highest levels of leadership to its citizens, has yet to negate those values that it claims as foundational to its character.
We've all seen those slogans used by tourist boards across the globe to entice travelers. While some of these tourism branding campaigns have been rather successful (Jamaica's, for example), most are so homogenous as to be completely interchangeable. National identity (or "brand," or "character" -- these terms are synonymous) is assuredly not to be confused with advertising, marketing or public relations campaigns for countries. National identity, when most effective, is a simple and honest way of expressing those fundamental values that make a country and its citizens who and what they are.
Norway has been visibly involved in peace negotiations around the world, and has shown a constant distaste for radical and right-wing polarization, not to mention the fact that the world's best-known prize for peace finds its home at the Norway-based Nobel Institute. Put more simply, Norway has branded peace.
Chaos is an unfortunate side effect of violence or disaster. As much as society can prepare for the logistical requirements during the aftermath of shocking events, it is nearly impossible to prepare citizenry for the psychological ramifications that come with events that tear at the fabric of a nation. Though a well-defined national identity is most certainly secondary to the immediate needs of a nation in crisis, Norway's recent example has shown how powerful a country united under a single, unifying identity can be.
Geir Lundestad, director of the Nobel Institute, summed this up in a recent interview when he said, "These quite unimaginable attacks have challenged our national character, but they will not be able to alter our national characteristics. Even in these terrible days we have seen some of our sense of openness, democracy, equality come to the fore." He continued, "Even our king and queen show they are one of us. They weep with the rest of the country."
A strongly defined and reinforced national identity is not a fix-all cure to all that ills a nation; nothing is. What a well-defined national identity does do is strengthen the fabric of a society, as it helps to reinforce the notion that the true power of country is fundamentally linked to the strength of its citizens' belief in the metaphoric constructs that give order to their collective national identity. Our national identities remind us of who we are, and who we aspire to be.
Character, national or otherwise, is forged in crisis, and is most certainly flawed. Such is its nature. These events will most certainly cause Norway to question itself as a nation, and perhaps create a dialogue related to its identity. In a recent Reuters interview Mehtab Afsar, the Islamic Council of Norway's general-secretary, said, "I think minorities will think of themselves as more Norwegian ... religion, ethnicity, color will go into the background. The Norwegian identity will be strengthened. We are standing shoulder to shoulder with our Christian brothers and sisters in Norway."
Norway has shown that a country can embrace its character -- at all levels -- to its great advantage. If anything, Norway's immediate reaction to this terror was authentic, distinctly Norwegian, and due in no small part to a country and a people who know fundamentally who they are. The world could learn a thing or two from their example.