Accessibility links

Breaking News

Lessons From Oslo

Roses lie on a balcony overlooking a vigil in Oslo attended by some 150,000 people holding flowers in a show of solidarity with the victims of recent attacks in Norway on July 25.
Roses lie on a balcony overlooking a vigil in Oslo attended by some 150,000 people holding flowers in a show of solidarity with the victims of recent attacks in Norway on July 25.

For anyone who has visited Oslo -- a city of quiet streets and quiet people -- that a horrific massacre on the scale of what took place there on July 22 would occur is, for lack of a better word, unbelievable. Oslo is a city where the Slottet, the palace of Norway's royal family, lays open to Karl Johans Gate, the city's main avenue, with nary a police officer in sight. Contrast this lackadaisical approach to safety with the massive, armed presence around any government building in Washington, and you get a sense of the feeling which Norwegians had about their "idyllic country that basked in wealth, equality and beauty," in the words of Anthony Browne.

A small country buoyed by massive oil wealth, Norway contributes more foreign aid per capita than any other nation in the world. It is the granter of the Nobel Peace Prize. Norwegians have long been used to playing an outsized (some might say meddlesome) role in the affairs of the world. Now, they are experiencing something unprecedented: the world playing an outsized role in theirs.

The incredulity that Norway, of all countries, would be attacked was encapsulated in the remark of a friend, posted (where else?) on Facebook. "What did Norway do to anybody?!" he wrote.

The implication of this statement is that while terrorism against countries like the United States, Great Britain, or Israel may not be warranted, it is at least understandable. After all, these nations have long-term military engagements in Muslim countries, thus rendering them targets for Muslim fanatics. These countries "do" things, presumably bad things, to Muslims, which explains why some Muslims feel the divinely inspired duty to respond in kind.

But to imply that terrorism against the United States (or any other nation involved in some sort of military action in a Muslim country) is logical, that it could be averted were coalition nations to pack up their bags and leave the Middle East altogether, validates the arguments of extremists. While affecting neutrality, it is in fact an expression of taking a side, and the wrong one, in the great intra-Muslim dispute in which the West has inevitably become entwined. To say that the United States has brought terrorism upon itself by its decision to overthrow Saddam Hussein in Iraq or the Taliban in Afghanistan is to take the side of those Muslims who supported these reactionary forces over those who resisted them.

Moreover, such a belief ignores the fact that the United States has shed blood and treasure to defend Muslims from genocide in places like Bosnia, Kosovo, and East Timor, conflicts where American national interests, strictly defined, were not at stake. It also ignores the fact that the United States is one of the most generous benefactors of humanitarian aid to Muslim victims of natural disasters in places ranging from Turkey to Somalia to Indonesia.

Furthermore, it’s not as if Norway was an unlikely target for Islamist terrorism. The country is a founding member of NATO, and in that capacity has a fighting force of several hundred soldiers in Afghanistan. Norwegian newspapers published the infamous Muhammed cartoons several years ago, a move that resulted in worldwide riots and fatwas. And just over a week before Friday's massacre, the Norwegian government finally issued a terrorism charge against Mullah Krekar, founder of the Kurdish-based and Al-Qaeda–linked Islamist group Ansar al-Islam. A proud supporter of Osama bin Laden and an inciter of violence against U.S. soldiers, Krekar and his family have been living off the munificent Norwegian welfare state for two decades. The inexplicable generosity of the Norwegian government toward this cretin was not enough to persuade him from issuing death threats against those politicians who sought his deportation.

All of this is to say is that it was entirely plausible to think, in the immediate aftermath of a massive bomb striking government buildings in downtown Oslo, that last week's attack was the work of Islamists. While it may have been premature for some writers to speculate as to the identity of the perpetrators before the facts were known, it was hardly, in the words of James Fallows, "hysterical." It was certainly no more "hysterical" than it was for Fallows to write, just moments after Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was shot in the head in January, that, "it has been a time of extreme, implicitly violent political rhetoric and imagery, including SarahPac's famous bulls-eye map of 20 Congressional targets" and that "it is legitimate to discuss whether there is a connection between that tone and actual outbursts of violence, whatever the motivations of this killer turn out to be."

Of course, there was no solace to be had at all when the news emerged that the perpetrator of last week's attacks, Anders Behring Breivik, was a Norwegian, far-right extremist, and not a Muslim one. Surely, many Muslims let out a private sigh of relief, understandably fearful that they would have come under increased suspicion had the assailant been a fellow Muslim. Before Breivik's identity was even released, the secretary-general of the Islamic Council of Norway released a statement declaring, "This is our homeland, this is my homeland; I condemn these attacks and the Islamic Council of Norway condemns these attacks, whoever is behind them."

It's become a ritual now, in the aftermath of a terrorist attack, to scour every utterance, squib, and, in this case, manifesto produced by the killer for clues about his political beliefs. With Jared Lee Loughner, Giffords's attempted assassin, it is abundantly clear that there was no discernable political philosophy, despite the (stomach-turning) attempts by many American liberals to link him directly with the mainstream conservative movement. With Breivik, the picture is not so clear. London Mayor and "Daily Telegraph" columnist Boris Johnson would have us believe that, "There is nothing to study in the mind of Norway's mass killer." But that's not true. At points, his manifesto does not read altogether differently from what many on the American and European far right (with whose work Breivik is quite familiar, at points quoting many of them approvingly, and at length) have to say about Muslims. To "study" Breivik is not to aggrandize him, just as the study of anti-Semitism does not to aggrandize anti-Semites, nor the study of antiblack racism aggrandizes the Klu Klux Klan.

Part of the temptation to write off a terrorist’s ramblings as the delusions of a "radical loser," as Alan Johnson characterizes Breivik, is that it helps us isolate the killer as an enigma, to place him outside the realm of our regular political life. Doing so might make us feel better; it might solidify our own sense of sanity, but it does us no good as a society to ignore the very real furies that exist in the minds of other potential Breiviks. It should be clear to all at this point that there was a political motive to Breivik's horror, in a way that there was not for Loughner's, which is why the former, and not the latter, is accurately described as a "terrorist," given that word's definition as one who uses violence against civilians to further a political cause. If we are to combat that political cause, we must understand it first. We take the ideology of Al-Qaeda very seriously. We must do the same for Anders Breivik.

Cross posted at "World Affairs Journal."