The other day, the Norwegian government released the names of all 77 of the people who died either in the Oslo explosion or during the massacre on Utoya Island. Nearly all were adolescents. One had celebrated her fourteenth birthday just five days prior to her violent and tragic death.
The senseless, unnecessary loss of life is horrifying for Norwegians and for all people who grieve.
The toll could have been much higher, however, had it not been for courageous people in small boats who – reminiscent of the “miracle of the little ships” that saved Allied soldiers’ lives by making their way across the Channel to pick up stranded men on the beach of Dunkirk in 1940 – hearing shots and screams from Utoya, pushed out their own small boats to rescue children from the cold waters of Tyrifjorden.
Two of the vacationers who did so, Hege Dalen and Toril Hansen, were able to save forty children swimming for safety, at the risk of their own lives. Bullets riddled the sides of their boat as the killer Breivik attempted to mow down even those who were attempting rescue, as he had shot into the waters to murder fleeing children. Dragging the frightened, bleeding adolescents up from the water, keeping the boat trimmed so it didn’t tip over – and present even more of a target to Breivik – then returning to the mainland to offload the saved children and return for more, Dalen and Hansen made four trips back and forth with their small craft.
They knew the danger. The pair – who had been enjoying a simple dinner as campers on the shore of Tyrifjorden – quickly put their own safety aside in the service of the greater good, in the service of the young and helpless.
Along with other boaters, they reduced the number of murders by dozens.
The Norwegian press has noted the contributions of Dalen and Hansen in keeping with their society’s love of individual rights (and, perhaps, in accord with their requests – they may want to keep their heroism quiet).
What is interesting to Americans, however, is that these two heroes are female (since we equate classic, big-movie heroism with men – this week’s blockbuster film, Captain America, is an example . . . scarcely a woman has lines, and it’s all about boys and their toys); they are lesbian in a world that barely acknowledges lesbians’ right to existence (in some parts of Africa and Asia, they are beaten, raped and murdered with impunity); and they are a married couple (in most of the world, a wedding between two women is not even possible).
No wonder. As one journalist pointed out, married lesbian heroes are an uncomfortable fit with our own assumptions.
Which is too bad. The world, and people growing in it, need many examples of heroism to counter evidence of malice and downright evil. Here, we should say, is bravery. Here is courage – knowing there may be harm ahead, but going forth and doing not just what is expedient, but what is right. Regardless of one’s identity, the details of one’s life, everyone has the power to do good. In the face of atrocity, we must do good.