OSLO, Norway — Military and police helicopters buzzed the skies above Oslo, armed police officers stood at street corners and a ground-to-air missile defense system was installed outside town to protect against air attacks: The Norwegian capital Thursday was reminiscent of an armed camp, rather than the sedate city that honors men and women fighting for peace.
More than 2,000 police officers have been mobilized for Barack Obama's visit to collect his Nobel Peace Prize. Police officers do not usually carry guns in Norway, but they did Thursday, as most were equipped with automatic rifles or hand guns. If the U.S. president waves to the crowds from his hotel balcony this evening, he will do so from behind a bullet-proof screen, and with the protection of snipers spread across nearby rooftops.
The Norwegian public broadcast station published a guide of "Do's and Don'ts While Obama is in Oslo." It included this grim warning from the chief of Oslo police: "Don't have lights in your room, don't stand too near your windows, make sure the curtains are open, keep the window shut, don't go on the roof. Don't lean out of the window with a camera." All that for fear of of catching a sniper's eye.
A 74-kilometer-wide no-fly zone for small planes and helicopters has also been put in place, causing delays in air traffic to and from the capital. “This is completely ridiculous,” said Christian Ingvardsen, a 38-year-old businessman, as his plane to Norway was delayed at Copenhagen airport. “I like Obama, but this is getting completely out of hand. Is it like that when he travels in the U.S.? Do they really shut down Chicago like this?”
Ingvardsen’s surprise is understandable: Security restrictions of this kind are unheard of in Scandinavia. “We are used to bump into politicians in the streets, they are always very accessible. Even the royals cycle on bikes,” he said.
Obama’s visit to Oslo came amid an uproar over the cancellation of a series of events normally attended by the Nobel Peace Prize laureate. Many Norwegians are incensed over what they view as the U.S. president's shabby response to the prize in cutting short his visit.
The White House has cancelled many of the events peace prize laureates traditionally attend, including a dinner with the Norwegian Nobel committee, a press conference, a television interview, appearances at a children's event promoting peace and a music concert, as well as a visit to an exhibition in his honor at the Nobel peace center. He has also turned down a lunch invitation from the King of Norway.
According to a poll published by the daily tabloid VG on Wednesday, 44 percent of Norwegians believe it was rude of Obama to cancel his scheduled lunch with King Harald, with only 34 percent saying they believe it was acceptable. "Of all the things he is cancelling, I think the worst is cancelling the lunch with the king," said Siv Jensen, the leader of the largest party in opposition, the populist Progress party. "This is a central part of our government system. He should respect the monarchy," she told VG.
The Norwegian Nobel committee, which awards the peace prize, dismissed the criticism. "We always knew that there were too many events in the program. Obama has to govern the U.S. and we were told early on that he could not commit to all of them," said Geir Lundestad, secretary of the committee.
Although Obama did not have lunch with King Harald, he still met him on a visit to the royal palace.
Despite the uproar over cancellations and the military-like atmosphere, there was still much enthusiasm for Obama in the streets of Oslo — the first by a U.S. president in office since Bill Clinton in 1999.
As Obama’s 23-car convoy raced past Kristian IV’s street to the royal palace on Thursday, many passers-by cheered with joy at seeing the world’s most powerful man in their city. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and a very big event for Norway,” said a beeming Julie Hegland, 16, as she held up her orange phone to film the convoy going by. “I think I saw [Obama] in his car, but I really can’t be sure.”
Many were understanding of the security arrangements. “We live in a world where it is difficult for a U.S. president to go about in safety, so I can see why all these measures are necessary,” said Roar Julsen, a 68-year-old retired civil servant waiting under the drizzle for a glimpse of the U.S. president. “But all these security arrangements are bizarre to see in peaceful Norway.”