This man is a terrorist.
Blond, blue-eyed, solidly middle-class, raised and educated in a Western democracy, yes. He’s far from the al Qaeda foot soldier everyone expected when news of the Oslo bombing and subsequent shooting on Utoya island broke. Some are calling him Norway’s Timothy McVeigh, and that’s apt: both of them were home-grown terrorists who decided to express their dissatisfaction with their societies by building farms out of fertilizer and parking them in front of government buildings in hopes of maximum mayhem. But Anders Behring Breivik proved a far more ambitious fanatic. The fact his body count didn’t exceed McVeigh’s isn’t due to anything more than somewhat poor timing and excellent police work.
This is Norway’s Oklahoma City in more ways than one. I remember when we all thought the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building must have been bombed by Arab terrorists, back in the early hours before McVeigh got arrested for traffic violations and the truth that even good ol’ American boys could be terrorists fell down upon us. Norwegians are a bit shocked at themselves for their assumptions, but let’s face facts: most of the people we encounter blowing up selves and others these days are, indeed, Muslim. A few too many people, especially in my country, made the leap from “could be” to “must be” far too quickly, but the initial suspicion wasn’t completely unfounded. When Islamist fanatics tell the West repeatedly and often they’re determined to blow our shit up, it’s not silly to think of them when a bomb goes off.
But people like Breivik and McVeigh remind us that terrorism is not the exclusive method of Middle Eastern extremists. And this is something we must accept. Even blond, blue-eyed native sons can be terrorists. When someone engages in mass slaughter for political and religious motives, with the intent of terrorizing society into compliance with their views or destabilizing the government they despise, they have committed acts of terrorism, no matter how white and Christian they are. This is something some people seem to forget, the moment the suspect turns out to have a pale complexion. People stop using the word “terrorist” and start using words like “madman” and “mass murderer” instead. The terrorist goes from being a terrorist to some lone weirdo who must be an anomaly.
Breivik is not. Breivik is a cold, calculating, far-right son of a bitch who hasn’t a trace of remorse. He is a man with a cause who planned his act of terror carefully. He was as driven by ideology as any other political terrorist, and to call him delusional or insane is an insult to people with genuine mental illnesses. He’s a product of right-wing ideology, not mental disease or defect.
We need to get over this tendency to think that our native sons and daughters are nuts when they adhere to home-grown extremist ideologies. When their ideologies lead them to commit stunning acts of terror, we need to stop comforting ourselves by thinking they must be aberrations. They belong in the same category as other people we call terrorists. Terrorism is not merely a foreign phenomenon. Terrorism is a method any extremist can use, and native extremists do. It’s just that, with a few spectacular exceptions, our home-grown extremists haven’t been quite as good at it. That, unfortunately, could easily change. And we won’t be prepared to handle them if we insist on seeing our very own terrorists as something qualitatively different from other sorts.
What Breivik has reminded us is that terrorists can and do arise even in the most peaceful, progressive societies. Wherever there are politically disaffected people with a martyr complex and the belief that violence will serve them where the ballot box has not, you’re at risk of having some despicable shits load up on bombs and bullets and attempt to change the political landscape by force.
What can a society do, in the face of that?
Norway appears headed in the right direction. So far, their people and their leaders have understood that the answer to terror is to not be terrorized. They’re standing strong on their values and their democracy. They’re not leaping immediately to create a national security or police state. This has pushed them in the opposite direction from what Breivik seems to have intended, and that’s exactly the right response. You won’t get terrorists to stop terrorizing by letting their attacks succeed. All you’ll do is help them destroy your cherished society. You may not remake it in the image they intended, but by giving in to the terror, by letting fear strangle your freedoms, you’ve handed them a win. That’s not the way to go, and I’m glad to see Norway understands that.
What can a society do, in the face of terror? Do what Norway is doing: catch the terrorist(s) who did it. The fact that they took this terrorist alive, right in the middle of his shooting spree, is outstanding. That denied him martyrdom, which takes a lot of wind from his sails and gives those desiring a glorious death for the cause something to think about, should they decide to attempt an act of terror themselves. It also makes it much less likely that there will be further terrorist attacks undertaken as acts of revenge.
You might notice Norway hasn’t shipped Breivik off to some military installation to be tortured. They’re using no “enhanced interrogation.” He’s being afforded due process. Under Norwegian law, it appears he’ll even have a chance at freedom in 21 years. Never mind that his chances are about equal to Charlie Manson’s. The point is that the criminal justice system is handling him just fine, without going to extremes, staying within the boundaries set by an extremely civilized society, up to and including affording him proper representation, and yet they are perfectly confident that society has nothing more to fear from this murderous piece of shit. They’re completely right. Democracies do not have to adopt totalitarian tactics to handle terrorists. They should not. Doing what my own country is doing – suspending constitutional rights, eroding civil liberties in the name of “security,” destroying its moral authority by engaging in torture – doesn’t lead to a safer society, but one in which the terrorists, both home-grown and foreign, have all but won.
We have to accept the fact that we’re never going to be perfectly safe. Even if we completely closed our beautiful open societies, even if we crushed dissenting voices, arrested people for showing the slightest tendency toward ideas that sometimes lead to violence, even if we turned every building into a bunker and strip-searched every citizen several times a day, we’d still be at risk from people who hold extreme beliefs and aren’t afraid to risk their lives in order to kill for their cause. Better, then, to live in freedom. We can take precautions, harden targets and give law enforcement the tools they need to mitigate our risks and deal with those terrorist acts we couldn’t prevent, without destroying our civil liberties and our democracies. But let’s not make the mistake of living in terror. Let’s accept that there are risk inherent in any type of society, and some risks are more acceptable than others. I’d rather risk getting killed by an extremist than live under a dictatorship in the name of security. I’d rather risk dissenting voices that might get out of hand than silence all but the most bland.
I’d rather not fight terrorism with bigger guns, escalating the violence and spiraling us off into endless conflict. I’d rather fight Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg’s way:
At a press conference in Oslo, Stoltenberg, pictured, said that those guilty for the atrocities would be brought to justice and that the attacks would bring “more openess and more democracy” to the country.
“No one will bomb us to silence. No one will shoot us to silence. No one will ever scare us away from being Norway,” Stoltenberg said.
“You will not destroy us. You will not destroy our democracy or our ideals for a better world,” he added.
I wish my own country had followed Norway’s lead, rather than letting fear all but destroy everything that made her great.
All of us, every single democracy faced with terrorism both native and foreign, can do better. We must recognize terrorism for what it is, no matter who perpetrates it, and deny those terrorists the satisfaction of remaking our great societies into small and fearful ones. If we don’t, we are lost.