Think of Norway and what do you imagine? Oil. Fjords. Pine trees. Above all, a sense of peace. A country that has unostentatiously done good with its wealth. Not now. Images of violence currently define Norway on television screens worldwide. More than 90 people have been killed in Norway in a bomb attack on the Prime Minister's Office in Oslo, followed by an assault on a Norwegian Labour Party summer camp for young people. The clean streets of Oslo are covered in glass and debris. The glorious little island of Utoya is now forever branded with the horror of the mass slaughter. And for me, a personal shock. I have worked closely with the Norwegian Labour Party and the Prime Minister's staff since Jens Stoltenberg formed a government in 2005.
Norway will survive this. A crisis always reveals and this one has shown just how strong and eloquent a leader Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg actually is. Just as New York's former mayor Rudy Giuliani became the leader he always had the potential to be in his response to 9/11, so Stoltenberg has found a public voice and tone to match the gravity of events. His lines are pitch perfect: "We are a small country, but a very proud one. Nobody can bomb us to be quiet. Nobody can shoot us to be quiet. Nobody can ever scare us from being Norway."
That tone was reflected in the accounts of the survivors. The young women who hours after the killings were speaking calmly to camera. Adrian Pracon, county secretary of the Norwegian Labor Party, narrating from the hospital of how he was shot in the shoulder and played dead. All sharing the tone of their PM – if this could be described, it could be survived.
In these moments one could glimpse deep Norway – the country renowned for its commitment to reconciliation. The home of the Nobel Peace Prize. The host to the Oslo accords and many subsequent attempts to reconcile apparently irreconcilable forces. This was the country we believed we knew; indeed it was the one we all believed in. Prosperous, yet progressive and a committed peacemaker.
Looking to the future, one can already see the shape of the civicresponse. Stoltenberg will be able to lead his nation in mourning and reconciliation. Norway will rebuild and it will still be Norway – one can imagine no overreaction with new security restrictions, or harsh new laws. Listen again to Prime Minister Stoltenberg: "This is our emblem, that the society is open and we must do everything not to lose it. It is our emblem that people in Norway feel themselves secure. We must do everything to reinforce it."
So, if this is Norway – tolerant, modern, social democratic in ethos and action – what on earth was it that erupted into it on Friday? Where did Anders Behring Breivik, the gunman, come from? All through the day yesterday the picture was filled from blogs he had written and those who had encountered him. Breivik was a far-right-winger, a fundamentalist Christian and a self-avowed nationalist. He had apparently been building links with the English Defence League; he was a fierce online critic of the mainstream Norwegian conservative movement. The most concise, and chilling, of his utterances is his sole tweet: 'One person with belief is equal to the force of 100,000 who have only interests."
This is, perhaps, the key to understanding Breivik. For a man with his views, living in Norway was a waking nightmare. Racially tolerant and socially diverse, the dominant culture was one from which Breivik felt alienated. But despite being so out of touch with the mainstream – and the majority – he didn't change his views; he redefined reality.
The way that Norway was run was not, to his mind, based on values or beliefs. He, the lonely individual, was the one who had beliefs – and it was his very marginality that proved that he was the believer. The vast majority – the 100,000 of which he was 0.00001 per cent – merely had interests. By his calculation only 50 people in Norway had true beliefs.
Thus was Breivik able to dehumanise the society in which he lived – a key step on the route towards being able to kill so many so calmly. There has always been an anti-social democratic strand in Norwegian society and politics. The Norwegian black metal scene of the 1990s encompassed the burning of churches (nearly 30 churches over four years), murder and a suicide by gunshot, which allowed fragments of skull to be fashioned into necklaces. On the face of it very un-Norwegian, but perhaps there are a handful of people who find perpetual tolerance utterly unforgivable.
The question remains of why this spins into ultra-violence. Shakespeare was probably right. In King Lear he poses the question: "Is there any cause in nature that makes these hard hearts?" And then spends the entire play debunking all the theories propounded by various characters to explain the existence of evil. It is almost certainly a fool's quest to try to diagnose the precise origins of Breivik's actions. But is there something in the modern world that aggravates the misfit and accelerates his actions?
The echo chamber of the web helps the one in 100,000 who has an obscure interest to find fellow hobbyists worldwide, validating and including him. Surely it works the same way for the extremist.
The net proves you are not alone, and offers a forum for boasting – essential for building up courage and intent. It provides guidance on genre – the bomb – to supplement the techniques taken from Hollywood action movies – the "fake cop". And Twitter provides banner advertising for pseudo-Nietzschean aphorisms. None of this is to say that social media incite extremism; it's just that they may amplify it by providing an echo. One which creates a false sense that because you are not alone, you may also not be wrong.
What, though, is the lasting reflection to make? I think there is something stirring about the words of Eskil Pedersen, leader of the Workers' Youth League, the youth wing of the Norwegian Labour Party. At a press conference yesterday morning he said: "The gunman took from his victims their lives. But he can't take away what they believed in: tolerance and anti-racism." He added: "We will work hard for our organisation in the memory of those we have lost."
A country with young leaders like that will never be lost.
John McTernan is a political commentator and strategist and was political secretary to Tony Blair