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Silence for Norway's dead

  • 28 July 2011

While Norwegians mourn I am reminded of 25 years ago when I lived on Hoddle Street in Melbourne. On a quiet Sunday night Julian Knight committed Australia's first urban massacre on the street outside my home. That night, except for the helicopter light pouring through our windows, the quietude of death pervaded. We woke to a television screeching horrific noise and a disorientated nation.

Making my way to school I stepped away from the hysterical television and into the aftermath of war. Outside, the normally roaring Hoddle Street was covered in an eerie hush and with debris, dried blood and the drawn faces of police, media and emergency services personnel.

Sobriety fell from the grey sky to permeate everything. There was no running commentary, no flashing images, and no shiny newsreaders barking speculation. At the mourning site anxiety stood still. Nothing felt safe or familiar and I was completely silent inside.

At Clifton Hill Station the commuters were stone. Unlike other mornings where a hum rose from the crowd, everyone was frozen and silently faced the desecrated street before us.

I stood with this spontaneous memorial to strangers who, hours before, had left us. It was as if we stood at a cemetery, at the lip of the abyss, where our trust in others lay obliterated. Made mute, we stood together and met the silence of the dead. This act of solidarity between strangers resisted the blind individualism of Knight, who violently denied humanity to the strangers on the street.

It is powerful to watch the Norwegian people meet the silence of their dead at mass gatherings and marches. They poured from houses to remember together in silence, to reclaim public space and transform the streets into arteries of quiet solidarity. The Norwegian people are teaching us how collectively to mourn and reclaim social trust after it has been decimated.

Hysteria and noise still arise but, mainly, not from the directly affected. Many survivors from the island shooting have made a pact not to speak to the media about what they witnessed, not yet anyway. They don't want to contribute to the clamour that can cloud profound mourning.

Does it add anything to probe the wound while it's fresh? To report, to give an account, risks transforming trauma into spectacle, and disrespects the instinct of the wounded to recoil. There will be a time for public speech.

In the battle to understand what kind of mind perpetuates