Fighting Terrorism with Democracy: How Norway's Prime Minister Plans to Heal His Country

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Jonathan Nackstrand / AFP / Getty Images

Norway's Prime minister Jens Stoltenberg is seen after a press conference at his residence on July 27, 2011.

Jens Stoltenberg, the Norwegian prime minister, is sitting in a garden chair on a sun-drenched terrace in a comfortable, but not exceedingly luxurious house. A gardener plies a hole in the black loam with his spade, and then plants a small bush of purple Aster in full bloom as a garden waterfall bubbles tranquilly nearby.

Since July 22, when twin attacks by a right-wing extremist destroyed Stoltenberg's office, left 76 dead, and rocked Norway, Stoltenberg's bucolic home-office has doubled as his command center. In one room, a group of aides are huddled over laptops. In another, two security guards seem to be trying hard to remain invisible and pass the time. The furniture is modern, but not extravagant. If Norway were a house, it might resemble the prime minister's residence: modern, functional, wealthy, but a home that would fit a dentist or a lawyer just as easily as the head of government.

"This house says a lot about Norway," says Stoltenberg, a fit 50-something, sporting dark athletic sunglasses, in an interview with TIME. "One of our qualities is that the distance between political leaders and the people is smaller than in many other countries. Our challenge now is to try to remain a society where people can still be close to their political leaders."

That is Stoltenberg's mantra. Since Friday's bombing and shooting of dozens of teenage members of his left-leaning Labor Party by a right-wing extremist named Anders Behring Breivik, Stoltenberg has stayed on message at every occasion, whether in press conferences, or memorial services in Oslo, or facing a barrage of television cameras. He insists that Norway will not change.

Stoltenberg works the message, perhaps to calm Norwegians' fear of change and uncertainty, but also to keep the political realities clear. Asked what his first thought was when he learned that the attacker was a white Norwegian and not a dark-skinned Muslim, he said: "The first thing I thought is that this will create a completely different debate than if it was a foreigner."

A white home-grown right-wing attacker turns the debate in Stoltenberg's favor. Instead of getting grilled by a resurgent right charging the government with being soft on terrorists, Breivik has put right-wing politics on the defensive in Norway. And Stoltenberg and his Labor Party are clearly benefiting.

As he worked his way up the Labor Party ranks, Stoltenberg — a former journalist — was a regular visitor at the annual retreats in Utoya, a place, he says, where young Norwegians and government ministers would hang out and discuss politics. He has at times been a controversial figure in Norway. In his youth, he hung out in radical left circles and was active in anti-American protests in Oslo that decried the Vietnam War. Stoltenberg has admitted to smoking marijuana in his teenage years. In the 1990s, he served in various government posts, including Ministry of Industry in the Third Brundtland Cabinet, a Labor-led minority government. Stoltenberg previously served as prime minister from 2000 to 2001; his current term began in 2005.

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