Norway, a neutral and internationally-recognized peace negotiator, is an unexpected target for any terrorist attack, especially with the recent bombing and shooting, while the alleged perpetrator is as far-removed from the prevalent and unfair terrorist stereotype of an Islamic extremist of Middle Eastern descent. Yet people are surprised that Norway is a viable target and that the alleged attacks were committed by Breivik.
For those who recall recent history, this situation parallels the Oklahoma City Bombing of 19 April 1995 which ended up being committed by home-bred Timothy McVeigh, who surprised many when initial reaction pointed to Middle Eastern Islamic extremists as the culprits.
So it should come as no surprise that Norway has been the target of a terrorist attack, and that the alleged perpetrator deviates from the stereotypical Islamic extremist. The problem with the assumptions of the past decade since 11 September is that many people associate terrorism with a region, a people, and ideology. The truth of the matter is, the times indicate that terrorism is an idea, and the enemy has no face–or rather, the enemy has many faces.
Brevik, a right-wing Christian conservative and member of the Swedish online Neo-Nazi forum, is not unique in his characterization. Whether it is the Christian extremists who bomb abortion clinics and murder their doctors, fanatical idiosyncratic cults like Aum Shinirikyo gassing Tokyo’s subways, or nationalist separatists in Chechnya and Southern Thailand, the world at large has indicated that one definition finds terrorism to be a methodology used to communicate messages through force to achieve the aims of whatever group or ideology utilizes it.
As such, ideas cannot be destroyed, but other perspectives can be introduced. In this scenario, what we can currently see is that we (especially those in the west) must break beyond the unfair stereotypes and profiling that characterize airport searches and attribute terrorism almost exclusively to Middle Eastern Islamic extremists. Anyone can be a suspect, any place can be a target, and a variety of methods can be used to commit abhorrent acts of violence.
Unfortunately, current measures to counter or control terrorism can be equivalent to shadow boxing, as some critics might assess. We can try to treat the symptoms, but until we figure out the root cause, the last-resort and extremist approach will continue to be an option to default to for anyone and everyone who disagree with the current order and establishment of the world.
Benjamin Franklin often said, “Any society that would give up a little liberty to gain a little security will deserve neither and lose both.” Terms like “enemy” and “terrorist” do not define; they are categories and limitations pushed on others by the current establishment, and ultimately, this divide deviates from attempts to understand what inspires these attacks. It is an exercise in futility and a lack of creativity or imagination to portray the story of the world in black and white terms, and with the trend of states increasing security and anticipating attacks, we empower fear. In empowering fear, it is counter-productive, because it sends a message that tells people that terrorism gets reactions and results.
What are our options? As Mark Twain once said, “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so”. When many people attribute hate, violence, and terrorism to Islamic extremists from the Middle East, we become surprised when McVeigh and Breivik come up and prove us otherwise. As Donald Rumsfeld says in a well-known speech:
“There are known knowns; there are things we know we know.
We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know.
But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we don’t know.”
The often overlooked fourth category, however, is the uknown knowns: things we don’t know that we actually know, which is to say that we stare right at the obvious but fail to piece everything together and come up with possible answers. I attribute this to the prevalent rhetoric that divides the world into black and white, right and wrong, good and evil, which fails to make everyone accountable from the leadership level down to the individual level, regardless of affiliation.
So again, is it really a surprise that Norway was attacked when as far back as July, even The Atlantic had revealed the possibility?
Ultimately, some lessons we learn from this (or for others, be reminded of) can be summarized as 1) terrorism has no face, 2) terrorism is a methodology, and 3) anyone and everyone can be a target or culprit.