The mass murder carried out last year by right-wing fanatic Anders Behring Breivik was Norway’s worst act of terrorism, killing 77 people, mostly children, with a car bomb in Oslo and an assault on Utoya Island. The brutal attack shocked the normally very peaceful and safe country. But Breivik’s current trial has brought out the best in the people of Norway, who have taken a reasoned, united approach, deciding to not indulge their first impulses to lash out in panic or revenge — which would only mean ceding control and power over themselves to Breivik. The contrast with the reaction of America after 9/11 couldn’t be more stark.
Breivik, steeped in a reactionary paranoia of his own making, stated that “cultural Marxism” and multiculturalism were threats to Norway, and rationalized his cowardly, aggressive, bloody crime as self-defense — which is precisely the opposite of what it was. His atrocity is a reminder that not all terrorism is driven by extreme Islamists. Another major threat of terrorist violence comes from reactionary right extremists in both Europe and the US, who have never accepted the basic legitimacy and equality of other people and other cultures. They need to believe that the values and form of cultural life they were taught growing up is morally superior; that way they can define someone else as inferior and thus feel better about themselves. Yet dehumanizing others, rather than providing real confidence, makes right-wing extremists ever more paranoid as they make in their minds enemies out of everyone, until ultimately they convince themselves that if everyone does not adopt their values then the fall of civilization is inevitable. Such absolutism justifies murder and violence; atrocities are not performed by moral relativists but by moral absolutists, convinced as they are that they have nature, God, and right on their side. The United States, of course, is hardly immune to such social paranoia, as its reactionary radio and cable jocks, tea bag party, and recent wars of choice show.
The amazing thing is how Norwegians are standing up to Breivik’s atrocity and the paranoid vision that fuels it by refusing to be drawn in to a downward spiral of defensiveness and fear. They are expressly handling the trial with solemnity and self-respect:
- “This is the Norwegian way,” said Trond Henry Blattmann, whose 17-year-old son was among the 69 people killed in Breivik’s shooting massacre on Utoya island. “We need to carry this out in a dignified manner. If people were shouting and screaming this would be a circus and not a trial. We don’t want it to be a circus.”…
- Thomas Hylland Eriksen, a professor of social anthropology at Oslo University, said that by treating the trial with “respect and decency,” Norwegians are showing defiance against Breivik by standing up for values at the core of their national identity.
And 40,000 Norwegians of all backgrounds and ethnicities gathered together in Oslo to sing a song that praises multiculturalism, “Children of the Rainbow,” that Breivik had derided. They are reacting to tragedy with rationality and a reaffirmation of open, liberal, humanist, multicultural values. They have responded to a potentially fragmenting and alienating act of terror with a reassertion of their interconnection. It is an entirely admirable and dignified response.
Contrast that with the impulsive, flailing American reaction to the attacks on 9/11. Now, of course the scale of those attacks were much larger, but each incident of terrorism was a shocking demonstration to their respective societies of the destructive lengths to which the morally righteous are willing to go. The American response has largely been to indulge our vengeful id by lashing out with barely-focused violence, much of it against a country, iraq, that wasn’t involved in 9/11. That impulsive response has cost us dearly in terms of what we’ve become. We have engaged in wars of choice that have killed 100,000 people or more, we have abandoned precious, hard-won freedoms, and we have reinforced the habit of responding to perceived threats with violent lashing out (witness the Trayvon Martin shooting, based on the domestic version of the Bush doctrine of pre-emption in the form of “stand your ground” laws). The rational, dignified response of the Norwegians to the Breivik trial reminds me of the Dukakis debate episode in the 1988 presidential campaign: Michael Dukakis was asked a hypothetical question by CNN moderator Bernard Shaw: Would he want the death penalty for someone who raped and murdered his wife? Dukakis replied, “No, I don’t, and I think you know that I’ve opposed the death penalty during all of my life.” His calm, rational, principled reply was condemned and even mocked, and probably cost him the election. Somewhere we came to believe that individuals are incapable of responding to assaults with rationality, and even that it is somehow wrong to do so. Indeed the most acceptable response to violence at this point is to respond with paranoid and thoughtless lashing out.
The Norwegian rejection of Breviek and all he stood for, by treating their procedures of justice with respect and by singing a song of unity en mass, is a way of defeating him, of preventing him from doing what he really wanted to do: To use violence to make society more paranoid, just like he is. That dynamic was totally lost on America after 9/11: By responding with self-destructive, thoughtless anger and revenge, we let the terrorists control us, and so, in an important sense, they won; they won because we fell into their trap of transforming to become more like them. The Norwegian response to terror, a calm and rational reaffirmation of their mutual bonds and shared, inclusive values, is a better way than ours. We should learn from Norway.