The Norwegian reaction to last week’s terror attack says more than any expert analysis ever could.
The bombing of government buildings in central Oslo, and the killings at the Labour Party’s summer camp on the nearby island of Utoya, have shocked Norway and the world. Carefully planned, and executed with devastating effect – apparently by 32-year-old Norwegian national Anders Behring Breivik – these acts were deeply troubling, and anything but arbitrary.
Not clear on all the details of the attack? Want to know what the experts are saying? Click here.
One week later, what are we to make of it? Behind the headlines, can any kind of meaning be ascribed?
Late this spring, I spent two weeks in Norway, and left the country deeply impressed with the nature of its social democracy, and, more broadly, with the quality of its public infrastructure and environmental life. As someone very favourably disposed towards Norway, I would in no way seek to belittle or minimize the individual or collective consequences of this tragic episode. That said, I also believe that actions of this type must be very carefully considered and assessed.
Although the motives and techniques associated with terrorism have evolved over time, political extremism and religious violence have been with the world for millennia. However distressing these expressions of anger, alienation, or deep disaffection – whatever the animus – it is important to keep the significance of such events in perspective. Terrorist incidents remain relatively rare, and, as generators of mass casualties, pale in comparison to war, pestilence, famine, and poor public health, to name just a few of the issues that warrant much more concern than they generally receive.
Put another way, persistent underdevelopment, state failure, and abiding insecurity kill tens of millions of people annually, whereas terrorism kills thousands (and not every year, even at that).
Car accidents represent a much more serious threat to personal well-being.
In my view, the reaction of the Norwegian people and their government has been more instructive than either the interpretations of the violence or the various musings about the way that conventional and social media have treated this story.
When the attack first happened, “experts” and analysts jumped to the wrong conclusions. Find out more here.
To be sure, terrorism is fuelled by saturated press coverage. Because commercial websites, newspapers, radio, and television exist mainly for the purpose of selling audiences to advertisers, sensational incidents such as this tend to attract huge interest, and that connection is certainly worth noting. So, too, is so-called experts’ knee-jerk reaction to pin the blame on Islamic groups purportedly bent on revenge.
Still, in my mind, observations about trends in communications and journalism pale in comparison to the demonstration of steadfastness, determination, and commitment on the part of the Norwegian people and their prime minister, Jens Stoltenberg. The public and political solidarity, and insistence on sharing the grief and maintaining an open, democratic, and inclusive society without recourse to excessive overreaction or extreme security measures has been nothing short of inspiring.
To date, the Norwegian response has been much more measured, calm, and reflective, and seems to suggest a widely held conviction that a healthy public discourse is the best response to dissent over the changing face of Europe, or, for that matter, any other potentially divisive issue of public policy.
Norway’s Muslim community, feeling understandably vulnerable and exposed at this juncture, must take some solace from this admirable cultural attribute.
It is also worth noting that Norway has chosen – and not by coincidence – to play a leading role internationally by encouraging collaboration in the pursuit of solutions to such pressing global challenges as climate change, diminishing biodiversity, food and water scarcity, conflict resolution, and so forth.
Unlike many other NATO members, wholesale participation in what was, until recently, referred to as the Global War on Terror has not been at the forefront of Norway’s foreign-policy priorities, notwithstanding limited engagements in Afghanistan and Libya.
In that respect, and, indeed, in terms of many other domestic and international policy choices, Norway’s willingness and capacity to initiate, to respond, and to focus provides an example worthy of further study and, in some cases, emulation.
Canada and Canadians could learn much.
Photo courtesy of Reuters.