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Robert Koehler

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The Sky Is Weeping

Posted: 08/04/11 03:02 PM ET

When our lives are torn open, when the worst possible thing happens, what we have, finally, are our roses and our courage.

"I chose to stay in Oslo the entire week. It has felt like the most natural thing to do. I have never experienced any place any time in my life with such a complete absence of aggression. It feels like the city itself has gone into a peaceful place."

Is this possible? My sense is that Norway's reaction to its tragedy transcends much of the media coverage about it, obsessed as the media are with big-headline drama, who did it, who will pay. But something the headlines can't capture seems to be going on in this small country, some determination among the people, above and beyond any political agenda, to stand -- though wounded, though shattered by grief -- for their highest values.

The quote above is from a young Norwegian-born mom named Turid, who lives in the U.S. but had sent her 9-year-old son to summer camp in Norway. She described her experience in a letter that was forwarded to me by a friend. She had just arrived in the country and was waiting for her son at the Oslo train station when the bomb went off nearby, creating momentary pandemonium and instantly changing her plans. Rather than traveling out of the city, she and her son stayed with relatives in Oslo and became part of the national mourning.

Her words of wonder at Oslo's transformation -- at not simply the absence of a public desire for vengeance but the palpable expansion of the reach of love -- were reflected in numerous stories.

For instance, the very first funeral for one of the young murder victims, 18-year-old Bano Rashid, an Iraqi-born Kurdish refugee, became a moving affirmation of the values her killer sought to destroy. The service, held at a small, rural wooden chapel built in the 19th century, was conducted jointly by an imam and a Lutheran minister.

"Inside, the ceremony was poignant for someone who spanned two countries, two cultures and two religions," wrote Richard Alleyne in the U.K.'s Telegraph. "It was the first ever in Norway -- and maybe the world -- to combine Christian and Muslim beliefs."

A young woman named Ayesha, clutching a single red rose, said as her friend was being laid to rest, "This will make us more tolerant, bring us together, make Norway a safer place for people to come to," Alleyne wrote.

And here are the words of Trond Gunnar Rasmussen, chairperson of the Norwegian chapter of the Fellowship of Reconciliation: "As we wait for the names of the victims of these monstrous acts to be publicized, the sky is weeping. Our country is so small that the chance some families in grief are known to us is fairly high. The leader of the populist right party said: All we can do now is to go around hugging and embracing each other. This demonstrates just how united we feel right now...

"More than symbolic events, our societies need to seek a common understanding of the importance of nonviolence and a culture of peace. This must be our enlightenment in this time of darkness."

The sky is weeping...

I think about this haunting phrase, which starts to get at the enormity of the tragedy -- Norway's tragedy and all the others. Certainly the sky wept a decade ago, when it was rent by two hijacked aircraft, when the World Trade Center fell to its knees and 3,000 people died. But has it ever stopped weeping?

In the United States, vengeance and a covert political agenda trumped the roses, trumped all the grief and self-sacrifice and heroism. "Why are we violent, but not illiterate?" columnist Colman McCarthy once asked, making the point that nonviolence -- pragmatic emotional restraint under extenuating circumstances -- must be learned, just as literacy is learned. Rare (at least in my experience) is the political leader who sees much advantage to a populace with this much education.

I believe the United States could have gone in a different direction -- other than war and shopping -- after 9/11. When the sky was weeping, when everyone knew it and felt it, a different sort of leader might have reaffirmed the largest of American values rather than exploited the smallest.

"The Norwegian response to violence is more democracy," Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg said to his stunned nation as they gathered in grief. "Norwegians," he said, "want to defend themselves against violence by showing that they're not afraid of violence."

The ultimate tragedy of 9/11 is that this great opening, as Michael Nagler of the Metta Center for Nonviolence put it, was mythologized in the service of violence and a permanently bloated defense budget. It became a grand excuse for empire and occupation. We dehumanized the people of two nations and proceeded to destroy those nations. We did so for coldly strategic reasons, of course, but the patriotic rallying cry was revenge.

There is a passage we must traverse collectively, beyond geopolitics as usual and through our deepest fears, to a far deeper mutual understanding. Let's follow Norway.

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Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist, contributor to One World, Many Peaces and nationally syndicated writer. His new book, Courage Grows Strong at the Wound (Xenos Press) is now available. Contact him at koehlercw@gmail.com or visit his website at commonwonders.com.

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