Article Correctness Is Author's Responsibility: Memorializing Tragedy in an Era of Constant Mass Assaults

July 22, 2011, still stands as the bloodiest day in Norway’s history since World War II. Twin attacks that day, first a bomb in Oslo and then, two hours later, a gun massacre on the island of Utøya, claimed 77 lives. Anders Behring Breivik, the gunman responsible for both attacks, was captured and charged with the maximum sentence under the law.

Six years later, Norwegians are still wrestling with the weight of that day. In 2015, a modest sculptural memorial opened on Utøya, where Breivik shot and killed 69 attendees at a Labour Party youth summer camp, injuring at least 110 more. A national memorial—the subject of a conversation at CityLab’s Paris summit this week—remains more elusive.

A national memorial committee selected a design by Swedish artist Jonas Dahlberg three years ago. For Memory Wound, Dalhberg proposed to carve a deep cleft into the Sørbråten peninsula, a part of the mainland near Utøya. At more than 130 feet long and 11 feed wide, Memory Wound would stand as a gulf to be bridged but also a cut that cannot ever fully heal. Like another minimalist monument, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., Memory Wound would take the form of a gash in the landscape.

Memory Wound, a proposed July 22 memorial, scrapped by Norway in June 2017. (Jonas Dahlberg)

But the work proved too controversial for its intended audience. Critics did not want to face such a visceral reminder of the attacks. Following years of consistent, heated debate, Norway scrapped the memorial in June of this year.

It is easy to imagine the debate in Norway that led to the cancelation of Memory Wound. A local leader named Jørn Øverby threatened to sue the state over the design, calling it “hideous” and a “tourist attraction”—not a feature the municipality was eager to host. Instead, Norway will proceed with a more modest design (to be determined) at a different location, near the Utøykaia ferry stop on the mainland.

Tor Einar Fagerland, a professor of history at Norwegian University of Science and Technology, spoke at CityLab Paris about another July 22 memorial—one that may very well serve as the de facto national monument, no matter what the country decides to build in the end.

As Fagerland explains, one immediate question on Utøya concerned what to do with a small cafe building where 19 students were murdered. The Workers' Youth League, in whose camp the cafe was located, intended to tear everything down and rebuild from the ground up; some parents, however, argued that demolishing the cafe would erase the memory of their children’s deaths.

The Hegnhuset Memorial and Learning Center, a July 22 memorial on the island of Utøya in Norway. (Are Carlsen/Blakstad Haffner Architects)

A plan by architect Erlend Blakstad Haffner preserved but altered the cafe. The building is still riddled with small bullet holes; a piano that children hid behind stands in the corner. The project enclosed the cafe within a pavilion, behind 69 wood pillars, representing each of the people who died in the massacre. “The cafe building now stands like a piece of forensic evidence in this woodland vitrine, chopped and sliced in a process of architectural editing, so that only the rooms relevant to the events of that day are left standing,” Oliver Wainwright writes in The Guardian.

Fagerland described a sensitive exhibit that he designed for the Hegnhuset Memorial and Learning Center: a survey of text messages sent by terrorized children to their loved ones during the attack. Confrontational and harrowing, the exhibit explores the terror of the day in a direct and unsparing way. “[The text messages] are intimate, they’re painful, they’re there,” he says.

For Norway, the conversation about how to remember the July 22 terror attacks as a nation is ongoing.

Americans went through a similarly agonizing debate in deciding how best to remember the victims of the September 11, 2001, terror attacks. But in the U.S., where gun violence is far more ubiquitous, such a public reckoning with gun deaths feels impossibly far off.

No single monument could do justice to the specific circumstances of each mass shooting in America, especially since they happen on a near-weekly basis. There are far too many memorials to mass shootings in America, from the makeshift shrines from the most recent horror, in Las Vegas, to the plaque at the University of Texas at Austin recognizing the victims of the nation’s first civilian mass shooting in 1966. Yet there is nothing in the U.S. like Norway’s memorial—no national monument honoring the victims of ceaseless, senseless shooting deaths. The question of how best to memorialize these continued tragedies is likely to be caught up in the same politics as the problem itself.