Norway killing spree: Questions about political youth camps, Christian martyrs, and confirmed death tolls.

Answers to your questions about the news.
July 25 2011 5:05 PM

What Happens at a Norwegian Political Youth Camp?

Plus: Do Christian martyrs get rewarded in the afterlife? Also: How does a confirmed death toll decline?

Read Slate's complete coverage of the tragedy in Norway. 

(Left) Norwegian police search Utoya island following attack. (Right) Portrait of Anders Behring Breivik, the suspected perpetrator of the attacks on Norway.
Police scour Utøya Island after the shootings (left). Anders Behring Breivik (right).

Christian fundamentalist Anders Behring Breivik killed 76 people in downtown Oslo and on the nearby island of Utøya on Friday, possibly with the help of accomplices. The 68 victims killed on Utøya were participating in a "youth camp" for the Labor Party. What happens at a Norwegian political youth camp?

Debates, lectures, and regular summer camp stuff. Approximately 700 Labor Party enthusiasts between the ages of 14 and 25 descend on Utøya every year during summer break. The four-day event receives national media attention, and prominent Labor politicians make a point of addressing the group. (Former Prime Minister and party legend Gro Harlem Brundtland spoke on Friday and was among Breivik's primary targets, but she left the island before the killer arrived.) In addition to the lectures and debates, the campers play soccer, swim, share communal meals, and hold concerts. It's also widely known as a good place for singles to find that special, like-minded someone.

Unless they're responsible for running the meetings, campers are expected to bring their own tents and sleeping bags. There's a nominal fee to defray the cost of meals, but most attendees spend more money traveling to Utøya than at the camp itself.

The Labor Party isn't technically the organizer of the summer camp. Like other Norwegian political parties, Labor has a separate youth organization. It's known as the Arbeidernes Ungdomsfylking, or AUF, and it boasts around 10,000 members. A union confederation gave the island of Utøya to AUF in the early 1950s, and they immediately began using it for the summer gathering. (Outside groups can rent the island for meetings and events.)

Other Norwegian parties hold summer camps, but they're not nearly as well-established as AUF's event. Gatherings for the Progress and Conservative parties draw fewer people and typically last only two or three days. They're also irregular, whereas AUF's camp has been held annually for decades.

College Democrats at any U.S. university would probably be able to jump right into some of the political debates at the AUF summer camp. Norway's involvement in the war in Afghanistan has been somewhat divisive inside the party for years, for example, as have farm subsidies. Other debates include whether Norway should join the European Union.

Bonus Explainer: Breivik, a self-identified "cultural Christian," referred to his killing spree as a "martyrdom operation" in a 1,500-page manifesto published on the Web before the attacks. Islam supposedly offers virgins to martyrs in the afterlife, but do Christian martyrs get anything special? Yes—they jump the line on Judgment Day. Several early Christian theologians opined that those who died because of their faith would be the first people resurrected when Christ returned. Some disciples were so convinced of this teaching that they sought out burial plots near martyrs, in the hope that the proximity would somehow accelerate their own resurrection.

Breivik's attack would not have qualified him for priority resurrection among early Christians, however, even if he had died on Friday. Most ancient commentators noted that seeking martyrdom—voluntarily announcing one's faith to a Roman official, for example, to elicit execution—was really a form of suicide and did not merit any reward.

As Breivik noted in his manifesto, popes granted plenary indulgences—freedom from any punishment for past sins—to fighters during the Crusades, although they didn't have to die to get them. If they did die, however, many theologians considered them true martyrs.

Bonus Bonus Explainer: Police initially set the "confirmed" death toll at 93, but it dropped to 76 on Monday. How did that happen? It's unclear. In shooting incidents like the one on Friday, officers split into groups and scour the area for evidence like weapons, cartridges, and corpses. They then report their casualty numbers back to a supervising officer. The supervisor should wait for the medical examiner to certify the teams' work before making any public statements about a confirmed death toll, but pressure from politicians or the media can sometimes force the issue. We don't yet know what happened in Norway, but it's possible that a team's tally was counted more than once.

Got a question about today's news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks Elin Haugsgjerd Allern, Øivind Bratberg, Tore Hansen, Knut Heidar, and Anders Ravik Jupskås of the University of Oslo; Robert Blitzer of ICF International; Elizabeth Castelli, author of Martyrdom and Memory: Early Christian Culture Making; and Eric Holdeman of Eric Holdeman and Associates.*

Correction, July 26, 2011: This article originally misidentified Robert Blitzer as Robert Blazer.

Brian Palmer writes about science, medicine, and the environment for Slate and the Natural Resources Defense Council. Email him at explainerbrian@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter.

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