That the Oslo-Utøya killings were a heinous, monstrous act is beyond question. However, the sheer scale of shock cannot be separated from the fact that they occurred in Norway.
Idyllic, secure and wealthy, Norway is not without reason a model nation for the rest of the world. Certainly, it has felt by far felt the safest place that I have ever lived. And, as has been repeated many times over the last few days, it is also composed of a small population (4.9 million). All these factors have surely had some impact in magnifying the shock felt by the country and the rest of the world.
According to revised figures, Breivik's actions have resulted in the deaths of 76 people. That more than doubles the number of homicides that Norway typically expects in any given year. Over the five-year period 2004-2008, official statistics show that an average of only 33 people were murdered in the country per annum.
In comparison, South Africa averaged an astonishing 18,635 annual homicides over roughly the same period. In other words, the daily murder figure in SA is one and a half times the Norwegian yearly figure. Another way of looking at it, is that Breivik's tally of 76 lives is lost every 34 hours in SA.
Granted, South Africa has a much bigger population (49.3 million). However, even adjusted for population differences, the difference remains fairly staggering. The murder ratio per 100,000 people in SA is approximately 38, versus a mere 0.7 in Norway. In other words, someone is 50+ times more likely to be the victim of a homicide attack in South Africa than Norway.[*]
And then there are natural afflictions. At this very moment, the Horn of Africa is battling the worst drought in 60 years. Exact figures are hard to determine, but UNICEF estimates that nearly 500,000 children in the region are suffering from life-threatening, severe acute malnutrition. It is believed that as many as 10 million people stand to be affected by the drought (although not all will face life-and-death circumstances). While I maintain that there are strict limitations to adaptation in a world characterised by increased climate extremes, economic development and freedom -- as well as robust political institutions -- are the fundamental pillars towards unchaining human suffering from natural disasters.
This should go without saying, but in no way do I wish to underplay the impact of Friday's events. Further, and while it may still be too early to make sweeping statements, my sense is that the Norwegian people have done themselves eternal credit in the immediate wake of this tragedy. Almost every interview, camera shot or news editorial has depicted a nation coming to grips with devastation in a unified dignity. Norway has only reinforced its qualities as a model for inspiration.
However, these figures do serve to illustrate the stark differences by which we continue to measure life and death in wealthy countries versus the rest of the world. Economic development may be the most humane -- and humanising -- pursuit ever undertaken.
[*] And now... having written the above, I'm struck by an immediate sense of patriotic regret. I don't wish to convey the sense that South Africa is a dangerous hell-hole. It certainly isn't. The disparity between the two countries has as much to do with Norway's exceptionally peaceful environment, as the fact that certain areas in South Africa are beset by crime. SA has its problems, but still offers wonderful lifestyle opportunities for those fortunate to enjoy them. I hope to return after my studies are completed and truly believe that it is a must-see for anyone wishing to do some travelling... And very safe provided you don't take unnecessary risks.