Saturday, July 23, 2011
It turns out that the prime suspect in the worst violence that Norway has seen since World War II is a native Norwegian with no foreign ties. Police still have not yet determined if he acted alone or as part of a group.
The scale and violence of the attack led everyone (including yours truly) to initially conclude that the attack was the work of Islamist terrorists. Norway is not the neutral country most assume it to be. It is a member of NATO. Its military is very much involved in operations in Afghanistan and Libya. Norway is a relatively soft target compared to the USA or France or Britain. It would make sense for Islamist groups to target Norway for an attack either as retaliation, or in an attempt to split the Western alliance.
We were all wrong. Police say that he is a Christian fundamentalist and a racist, but so far there are no indications of ties to any group. The extreme right is comparatively weak in Norway compared to large and well organized groups in Sweden and Denmark, and certainly nothing like the well organized, well funded,-- and well armed -- far right groups in the USA. Like an earlier right wing terrorist in this country, he apparently used a fertilizer bomb, though that is still unconfirmed.
The European far-right frequently slips beneath the American cultural radar. Americans, both right and left, tend to fixate on European welfare states, creations of the experience of the Second World War when the inherent instabilities and uncertainties of unregulated capitalism uprooted and impoverished millions of people, driving the violent ideological movements that made the War. The American left envies those cradle-to-grave-care systems and the American right despises them. Both sides miss the profound struggles over national and cultural identity taking place in Europe now as those old nation states face a much more cosmopolitan and interdependent world. Out of those struggles emerges a new and energetic far right driven by anti-immigrant xenophobia, renewed antisemitism in eastern Europe, and just plain racism.
It is remarkable how frequently fundamentalism and racism appear together. This is certainly not always the case, but it happens a lot. I think the connection is supremacism. Neither fundamentalists nor racists believe in anything like universal salvation or universal human rights. They both believe in Chosen communities, chosen by God or History or Destiny or whatever. They both believe that their group will inherit the earth and that all others are but usurpers, doomed to be swept away by God or Nature or History or whatever.
Norway's experience over the next few months and years will be grief and shock that something like this could happen in so peaceful and remote a country as theirs. So many people, especially young people, died and leave behind hundreds of bereaved family and friends. The special shock and grief of seeing people so young die so suddenly is probably the worst pain of all. Those families and friends will need all the help and support that their country, and all the rest of us, can give them.
It will be interesting to see if and how this calamity affects the political and cultural conflict here. What exactly do we mean when we call someone a "terrorist?" And if Breivik for whatever reason doesn't qualify as a terrorist to some, then why not? What about the role of religion in matters of cultural identity (a tribal issue)? Should religion matter in cultural identity? Should religions like Christianity that make universal claims even be involved in any way with matters of national or ethnic identity? And there is the whole issue of who speaks for Christianity? Who gets to define what it is? Who owns the copyright? Christianity, like Islam, is ridden with conflict over issues of belief, practice, and identity, conflicts that arise as it faces modernity. Like Islam, Christianity faces the choice between rejecting modernity completely, its cosmopolitanism, its liberalism, perhaps even its science and technology; or somehow embracing it despite the nihilism of the market economy and its culture, and making a productive relationship with it.
And of course, there is the role of violence. An extreme rhetoric of elimination pervades Right wing political speech here. There is a corresponding extreme language of vilification beginning to appear in some left circles in reaction ("for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction," said Isaac Newton). Could we see similar violence in this country? We already have with the Oklahoma City bombing of 1995, and many smaller violent incidents since then. Because it is human nature to generalize from the particular, we could see Christians of all persuasions lumped in together and vilified. We could get a taste of what our Muslim neighbors have been going through for 10 years. For all I know, Norwegians could get singled out for extra scrutiny from now on. People and their fears and loathings can be strange and capricious.
Above all, we must be careful when we look at the picture of Anders Breivik, or Timothy McVeigh, or Osama Bin Laden, that we are not looking into a mirror. Those men had nothing but their fears and loathings. We must always be careful that ours do not take us down a similar path.
Posted by Counterlight at Saturday, July 23, 2011