Arik Hesseldahl

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A Norwegian National Tragedy That Unfolded on the Web (Updated)

What’s being described as the most violent day in Norway since the Second World War unfolded today for so many via social media.

Having seen early reports concerning an afternoon bombing attack outside government offices in Oslo, I sought out news outlets such as local broadcaster NRK to see if any live footage was coming from the scene.

There was, and though I don’t speak a word of Norwegian, I was able to piece together a narrative showing Norway suffering through its own 9/11 moment. There were even very early reports that some Muslim men who had been under surveillance had been arrested in connection with the blast. The video below was taken in the immediate aftermath of the blast.

Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg, unhurt in the bombing, was at one point said to be at an undisclosed location. If his name sounds familiar it’s because he was the Prime Minister who last year was stranded in New York by the erupting Icelandic volcano, and took to governing his country using an iPad. Security around the royal family was boosted. Government officials appealed to local residents via Twitter to refrain from using wireless phone networks so as not to overwhelm them. With several people trapped in damaged buildings, locals in the area were also asked to unlock their Wi-Fi routers to allow those trapped to communicate and bypass the cellular networks.

But it was on the site of another Norwegian broadcaster, TV2, that I saw the first early reports of a shooting on the island of Utøya. The headlines, many relayed by people in the country on Twitter, quickly worsened.

The story that emerged from Utøya was doubly disturbing. A man dressed as a police officer arrived on the island armed with an automatic rifle, gathered together young people attending a political event taking place on the island, ostensibly to tell them about the bombing in the city. Instead he opened fire.

People scattered. Some headed for the water to try and escape by swimming to the mainland. Others tried to hide and some used their phones to send Twitter and text messages calling for help. “There’s some shooting at Utøya. Call the police!” Tweeted Kjetil Vevle, who was there.

Noen skyter på Utøya. Oppdater politiet!!
Kjetil Vevle

Other reports emerged of messages sent by teenagers — most at the event were aged 15 and 16 — saying they couldn’t answer calls to their phones because they were hiding and trying to remain quiet. Frantic parents were unable to get reliable information. Police and ambulances, fearing more bombs were planted on the island, initially didn’t approach.

Photo reportedly showing #Utoya gunman via @ @ //(Not a closeup)
Ms Journalist

The story that has emerged from local media of desperate teens Tweeting for help is a harrowing one, even through the disjointed Google translation. “Do not call me, I’m in hiding,” and, “Anyone with a boat near Utøya. Drag and pull swimming young people who escape from the island! Spread the word!” they said.

One image emerged — apparently taken from a helicopter — of the attack while it was still in progress, showing the alleged gunman, though at a distance.

Photo reportedly showing #Utoya gunman via @ @ //(Not a closeup)
Ms Journalist

One witness told a local TV station that he had counted 20 or 25 bodies on the island. Another picture — apparently snapped by a mobile phone and which I will not show you — emerged showing bodies washed up on the shores of Utøya.

Early on, the speculation focused on Islamic jihadists as the likely perpetrators, making it seem that Norway had experienced its 9/11 moment. It eventually emerged that the alleged shooter is a 32-year-old native Norwegian, named Anders Behring Brivik. It didn’t take long for Twitter and Facebook accounts thought to be his to surface. Assuming the accounts belong to the same person, the one and only Tweet sent on July 17 was creepy and, in hindsight, ominous. As I write these words police in Oslo are searching his apartment.

Perhaps Oklahoma City, rather than 9/11, is a more apt comparison. That change makes it all no less horrifying. There is no information as yet about a motive. As of now, the combined casualty count is 17, and sadly I fear it will climb higher in the hours to come.

One person with a belief is equal to the force of 100 000 who have only interests.
Anders B. Breivik

Update as of 7 pm PDT, 10 PM EDT: As I feared, the numbers did grow. Reuters just flashed the new updated casualty count from the Utøya shootings is now 80, making the total combined casualties at both sites 87, and police are saying it may grow more yet.

Norwegian police say at least 80 killed in shootings at Utoeya

Norwegian police say killings are of “catastrophic dimensions”, may rise above 80

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The problem with the Billionaire Savior phase of the newspaper collapse has always been that billionaires don’t tend to like the kind of authority-questioning journalism that upsets the status quo.

— Ryan Chittum, writing in the Columbia Journalism Review about the promise of Pierre Omidyar’s new media venture with Glenn Greenwald