Norway attacks shatter stereotypes

from Getty images

Yesterday, an explosion rocked government offices in Oslo, capital of the Scandinavian country of Norway, killing seven and wounded more. Then, during the chaos that ensued in Oslo, a man posing as a police officer opened fire in a youth camp affiliated with the country’s ruling political party. The toll of the shootings has been rising consistently, but the current count is a staggering 85. All told, that is at least 92 dead from seemingly political attacks on a developed western country.

In the past 10 years, this type of attack (especially the bombing) has become synonymous with an Islamic jihadist assault. See London’s 7/7 bombings or the 2005 bombings in Madrid.

It has become such a foregone conclusion that a terror attack, which is clearly what this event was, is stereotypically and subconsciously associated with extremist Muslims.

That is why it seemingly caught everyone off guard when the authorities announced they had arrested a man identified by witnesses at both scenes. And his name  was Anders Behring Breivik, “a religious, gun-loving Norwegian obsessed with what he saw as the threat of multiculturalism and Muslim immigration to the cultural and patriotic values of his country.”

Seemingly everyone thought this would turn out to be an Islamic extremist attack (perhaps a part of al Qaeda’s response to the death of Osama bin Laden). Very few jumped the gun as thoroughly as Washington Post columnist Jennifer Rubin, who published a blog post that flipped the attacks into a US policy talking point that she said showed lawmakers shouldn’t cut defense spending. Whatever you think of Rubin’s misled post (which has been skewered by The Atlantic, and remains the most popular piece on the Post’s opinion section), it actually went ahead and assumed something many were probably thinking.

But now, with the truth out that this couldn’t have been further from an extreme Islamic attack, we have to reconsider how we think about terrorism. The Atlantic’s James Fallows (probably spurred in part by his disgust for Rubin’s post) explored the chasm between how we have thought about terrorism since Sept. 11 and how it really is with the help of an insightful Norwegian friend:

I think what 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).  The international press reporting on this is still confused, and I think the Norwegian press is hesitant to express what may be obvious to them — maybe out of a feeling of shame.

I have to think this confusion perhaps stifled coverage of the tragedy. A colleague asked me yesterday if I had noticed that Norway was not getting nearly the same level of TV coverage most similar events draw. Several other people I asked said they didn’t get the bulletin until this morning, which would have been inconceivable during other terrorist attacks. I initially didn’t really have a reason for this. Norway isn’t exactly news capital of the world these days, so I wondered if it was a simple staff shortage for major American and world news outlets.

While I found out about and followed the story mostly through social media during my work day, I conducted a Facebook poll to try and figure out what the driving media outlet was for the Norway attacks. It only got 17 votes, but social media came in even with television, and news websites were the winners, garnering more than 50 percent of the votes.

That doesn’t seem too strange considering the fairly young average age of the people who voted, so I am not sure what was behind the perceived coverage shortage around the attacks, but I suspect it was the difference between what we expected the story to be and what it turned out to be.

This was more like the Oklahoma City bombings and less like al Qaeda. In fact, it wasn’t al Qaeda at all — it just looked like it. That may be the scariest part. Fallows’ Norwegian friend expressed the sentiment well when he wrote that “the virus of ‘jihadism’ may spread to extremist national politics in other countries. Let’s hope not.”

The takeaway message from this is that religious affiliation, appearance or ethnicity are not indicators for or against terrorism. There have been many stories over the past 10 years accentuating that Islam doesn’t equate to terrorism. Unfortunately, this reminds us that we have to view the extremist groups in our own country with the thought in mind that being American doesn’t preclude them from being terrorists either.

And while those things have always been true, I think there will be more reporters and regular citizens inquiring as to the means and motives of extreme political groups in America and elsewhere in the developed world.

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