Thoughts on 22/7

By Kristian Bjørkan

In the first issue of New Narratives I wrote that Norway is a peaceful place, free of many of the problems facing the rest of the world, a «unique vantage point, a place outside the fray where you can observe undisturbed». If any proof was needed that I can’t foresee the future, that would be it.

On the day of the attacks, I was at home in my student flat far outside the center of town. I did not hear the explosion, or feel the building shake, as everyone downtown reported, and mercifully everyone I know was unhurt, though there were some close calls.

I watched the unfolding event on the news in the safety of my triple-locked flat, not knowing how to respond or what to think. But I remember fearing what might happen as a result. If experience with terror has taught us anything, it is that the greatest harm terror does to us is not the direct death and destruction wrought by terrorists, but the destruction terror makes us wreak upon ourselves in response. I did not know how Norway might respond to the worst attack upon it since World War 2, a lifetime ago, and I was afraid to find out. My fears were seemingly assuaged by the response of the Norwegian people and politicians, who reacted with dignity and adherence to democratic principles rather than by giving in to fear and retreating to a siege mentality, or to a desire for revenge. But I still fear the long-term effects may be dire.

Sticking to principle in the face of adversity is difficult. Giving up on principle, not maliciously or with ulterior motives, but incrementally, by shifting priorities one step at a time in the direction of more security, more suspicion, more safeguards (and what of it if the safeguards are intrusive and degrading if they save lives?) is easy. And once you begin down that road, it soon becomes apparent that every small step further makes you just a little bit safer, and the only costs are intangible things like human dignity and respect for civil liberties. As an example, in the US, the latest advance in airport security is a machine that looks through your clothing and displays a naked picture of you to the security staff. If you don’t want them to see you naked, you can get a patdown instead. But in order to persuade people to tolerate the scanner, the staff were instructed to make the patdowns needlessly intrusive and humiliating. So either you let them take naked pictures of you, or let them molest you. Benjamin Franklin said that «those who would trade a little liberty for a little security will lose both liberty and security.» His countrymen sadly forgot that bit of wisdom in the aftermath of 9/11. I hope we’ve learned from their mistakes: terrorists want to spread fear. If we give up our principles in exchange for security, we have let fear win us over, and they will have completed their goals.

In those chaotic hours in July when the atrocity unfolded, the world’s attention turned to Oslo, and everyone speculated who might be responsible. Early on commentators pointed the finger at Al Qaeda, and on the internet some claimed responsibility for the attack in the name of the “helpers of the global jihad,” a group that may or may not even exist, and shortly afterward retracted that claim. That the attacker turned out to be a blonde, blue-eyed Norwegian shook up the narrative. The attack was not Norway’s 9/11, but rather our Oklahoma City.

On April 19th, 1995, the Federal Building in Oklahoma City was bombed, killing 168 people and injuring over 600 more. Until 9/11, it was the deadliest terrorist attack that had ever been committed on US soil. Like 22/7, it was committed not by Islamic fundamentalists, but domestic extremists, and like 22/7, many people initially assumed the opposite. According to Stanley Fish, a literary theorist and New York Times columnist, in the time between the attack and the discovery that Timothy McVeigh, a white, Christian, right-wing anti-government extremist was responsible,

speculation had centered on Arab terrorists and the culture of violence that was said to be woven into the fabric of the religion of Islam. But when it turned out that a white guy (with the help of a few of his friends) had done it, talk of “culture” suddenly ceased and was replaced by the vocabulary and mantras of individualism: each of us is a single, free agent; blaming something called “culture” was just a way of off-loading responsibility for the deeds we commit; in America, individuals, not groups, act; and individuals, not groups, should be held accountable.

These are the typical arguments from privilege: our group is made up of independent individuals who make their own decisions, for good our ill, and when someone from our culture does something terrible that’s no reason for the rest of us to give any thought to just how sane and functional our culture actually is. Other groups and cultures, on the other hand, are homogenous, and every bad deed committed by their members reflects pervasive dysfunction within their societies.

I was greatly relieved that Norway responded as it did to the attack, but I also find myself pondering an ugly, ugly question: would our leaders and our citizens have behaved differently if the enemy who attacked us was not a member of ‘our own’ group? Could it be that we are choosing not to treat him and the extremist fringe he came from as an existential threat to us that calls for radical change and increased security exactly because his extremism is homegrown, Norwegian or European? I hope the answer is ‘no’, and I hope we never have to find out. But we have seen in the US, whose overriding political concern for much of the past ten years has been terrorism, that the very real terrorist threat of domestic radical right-wing elements is still largely ignored in order to focus instead on the more distant threats of Islamic fundamentalists. A 2009 report by the Department of Homeland Security warning of a rise in domestic right-wing extremism was withdrawn after an outcry by conservatives; its warnings have since proven frighteningly prescient. Some American news organizations consciously choose to use the word ‘terrorist’ only to describe Muslims who commit terrorist acts, and not others who commit comparable acts. That a Fox host like Brian Kilmeade should state on air that «all terrorists are Muslims» is not a surprise, but they’re not the only ones.

At this point it might seem like I think Norway is blind to an imminent domestic extremist threat that presents a real danger to everything we hold dear, but that is not intended. I am not privy to any more information about the 22/7 investigation than anyone else, but I do believe that while the terrorist participated on far-right websites, he actually was acting alone. And I find that a frightening prospect in itself: that he was able to do so much damage in spite of being just one individual, and not a member of a resourceful network. And that because he was not a member of a network, he was able to fly under the radar. The fact that he did not discuss his plans with anyone meant only that the police could not overhear him discussing it, and thus could not intercept him.

If that’s true, it serves to remind us of an important but sad truth. Not every tragedy can be averted. When faced with this kind of tragedy, what matters is not what could have been done differently, but how we choose to answer it. Norway chose to answer resolutely with love and compassion rather than fear and suspicion. It is up to all of us as individuals to further that resolution in the future, and remain a nation of peace.

Some sources:

Stanley Fish: http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/08/30/weve-seen-this-movie-before/?ref=opinion

Brian Kilmeade: http://mediamatters.org/research/201010180007

DHS report on right-wing extremism: http://mediamatters.org/columns/200906120037

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