The difficulty of looking inward

Reactions to the horrifying bombing and shootings in Norway have demonstrated yet again how hard it is for us to acknowledge that our own societies might have their own dark side. This is nothing new: we all have the tendency to play up threats from without (Osama bin Laden) and play down threats from within (Timothy McVeigh).

Most obvious has been the kneejerk tendency to claim this was an act of Islamic terrorism. I first read about the attacks on my Facebook feed, where the New York TimesNicholas Kristof, without any evidence, wrote, “Looks like Al Qaeda.” The Atlantic’s James Fallows, Ta-Nehisi Coates and Steve Clemons also rightly take The Washington Post and writer Jennifer Rubin to task for writing the same thing in much more detail. Kristof, Rubin and the Post have yet to retract/apologize for what they wrote, although Kristof has since acknowledged on Facebook that the alleged murderer was actually a right-wing extremist.

That’s all par for the course. I think we all have a tendency to jump to conclusions. Rather, the more fascinating thing about people’s reactions is how the facts of the case – the suspect is a Norwegian (white!), Christian, right-wing extremist whose beliefs are more in line with Mark Steyn than bin Laden  – are incorporated into the widespread belief that Islamic terrorists pose an existential threat to the West.

Case 1: James Fallows, who shares an email from a “Norwegian friend whom my wife and I have known since he came to the U.S. for graduate school in the 1970s.” This friend, whose letter is run without comment, suggests that “we are seeing is a mutation of Al Quaeda / Jihadist tactics, to domestic political action and the surprise is that it happened in peaceful Norway. (Yes, there was McVeigh and Oklahoma city, but it feels different, and maybe it is different just because it happened before 9/11).”

There’s a lot in here, though the letter is interesting more for what it tells us about how the writer perceives the world than what it says about the actual event.

Start with the assertion that we’re seeing a “mutation of Al Qaeda / Jihadist tactics to domestic political action.” Can we really call the bombing of government buildings and the mass murder civilians to make a political point “Jihadist tactics”? That countless groups throughout history have used such tactics to further domestic political aims suggest that he’s just plain wrong about the novelty of such attacks, in Europe if not in Norway.

Paul Wells links us to Dan Gardner, who reminds us that non-Islamic terror groups are much more active in Europe than Al Qaeda and its sympathizers.

The overwhelming majority of the [failed, foiled or successful terrorist] attacks [in Europe in 2009] – 237 of 294 – were carried out by separatist groups, such as the Basque ETA. A further 40 terrorists schemes were pinned on leftist and/or anarchist terrorists. Rightists were responsible for four attacks. Single-issue groups were behind two attacks, while responsibility for a further 10 was not clear.

Bombing government buildings and murdering civilians to make a political point, or the desire to do so, is a commonplace among extremist groups, including domestic groups. Full stop.

Which brings us to why, for this person, this attack “feels different” from “McVeigh and [the] Oklahoma City” bombing. It can’t be the facts of the case: McVeigh bombed a building and killed a lot of people, too. He, too, was a Christian, right-wing homegrown extremist. My guess is it feels different because of our very human tendency to attribute evil acts to outsiders.

His comments put me in mind of a Canadian friend, living in Japan, whose apartment was robbed. (Luckily, he had hidden his money in a copy of Marx’s Das Kapital, which the thieves for some reason left behind.) As I remember the story, the police were sure that foreigners were to blame: they were shocked when some Japanese kids confessed to the robbery.

To non-Japanese it’s neither surprising nor a sweeping indictment of their society that some Japanese kids were to blame for the break-in. No society is free of criminals, just as no society is free of violent racists. I’ve never been there, but I would be shocked if Norway were any different. Suggesting that this alleged murderer is “an individual host for the Al Qaeda gene” is akin to claiming he had been infected by some foreign virus, contaminating the otherwise-pure body politic of Norway.

I don’t know how helpful this line of thinking is, considering that domestic political violence is nothing new (Canada has experienced its share of “homegrown” terrorist bombings, from the 1970 October Crisis in Quebec and the 1985 Air India bombings to the more recent bombings of oil pipelines in Alberta). It may be easier – and in these nationalistic times, more popular – to condemn evil foreign influences, imagined or otherwise, than to confront “homegrown” problems. But the ability to do so is a sign of national strength, not weakness.

(And I haven’t even gotten into his suggestion that this might not have happened if there had been an ultra-right-wing party there to moderate the alleged attacker’s views, since the party would moderate its views in search of votes. Exactly how does that work in a system prone to coalition governments?)

My thoughts go out to Norway, and the families of the victims of this atrocity.

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