A sombre mood hung over Oslo on the Saturday evening of July 23, as people tried to make sense of the two terrorist attacks the previous day. A new and thoroughly unexpected enemy had emerged — not from outside, but from within. The streets were filled with people, but an unusual calmness permeated the crowds. Block after block was cordoned off with armed soldiers, police tape and flowers. Outside the main church, people stood in line waiting to go in and perhaps find some comfort. Even with the suspected perpetrator in police custody, it will take a long time for Norwegians to make sense of this tragedy and figure out how a seemingly peaceful society can produce such a brutal mass murderer. As the attacks were happening, Norwegians were gripped by fear. Who could do this? Who is behind this? Many assumed, including myself, that this was the act of a jihadist terrorist organisation like al Qaeda. It turned out to be nothing of the sort. The man arrested, who has since admitted to committing both attacks, is named Anders Behring Breivik. He is a 32-year-old tall, blonde, white man of Norwegian descent. He is what you typically refer to as a home-grown terrorist.
Make no mistake about it, Breivik is a terrorist. His acts were political in nature and deed. He targeted the heart of the political system in Norway in order to affect political change. Unweaving the intricacies of his ideology, though, is not easy. Breivik is a Christian fundamentalist and could be described as a right-wing radical, but he is not a neo-Nazi. In fact, he claims to be a Zionist. In his manifesto, publicised online on Friday, July 22, it is clear that Breivik was driven by rampant anti-Islamism, a hatred for Marxism and general disdain for multiculturalism. Breivik was advocating counter-jihad (ironically, he acknowledges drawing inspiration from al Qaeda), but as part of a larger plan to separate Europe from the rest of the world. Part of this process would include cleansing the European continent of Marxists and other perceived traitors. In that sense, Breivik is not strictly a nationalist, but a pan-European nationalist. It is in this light we have to examine Friday’s attacks. They were targeted at the political establishment in Norway, not immigrants. It was an attack against the system and the democracy that allows Norway to be an open society for people of all origins.
Europe has long struggled with right-wing radicals, a remnant of its fascist history. While it has rarely reached into the mainstream, every now and then a political party, be it in Austria or the United Kingdom, has come into the spotlight and been given a microphone for its xenophobic ideas. Most of the time, however, it has festered in the underbelly of society. In its latest open threat assessment, the Norwegian Police Security Service downplayed the risk of right-wing attacks but noted that new leadership could increase recruitment. Cooperation across borders with other likeminded radical groups could also become a danger. The fear now is that others will duplicate the acts of Breivik. His ideas could inspire others, as well as his methods. Unfortunately, it is nigh impossible to stop a lone wolf terrorist, because there is no network to infiltrate and no communication to intercept. Preventing such attacks from happening again will be difficult and will require all of society to speak up against the ideas at the root of Breivik’s convictions.
It is a cruel irony that attacks first thought to have been the work of a Muslim were, in fact, acts motivated by a hatred of Islam. This realisation comes with the lesson that the single most horrific act of violence in modern Norwegian history was perpetrated by one of our own. As we examine the rationale behind Breivik’s madness, we must also ask ourselves whether our own fear of external threats have helped such hatred grow. If there is anything to take away from this tragedy, besides an individual’s unlimited capacity for evil, it is that some of the worst monsters are the ones from within. It may be too early to say how Norwegians will respond to these tragic events, but Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg offered strong guidance: “We must never give up our values. We must show that our open society can pass this test too. That the answer to violence is even more democracy.” Norway will persevere. Though we mourn the loss of countless lives, our bonds of society are too strong for one madman to sever.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 26th, 2011.
More in PakistanFight with ideas, guns aren’t working