I wasn’t going to write about the Norwegian massacre because it has rather fallen from the front pages – then I realised that was precisely the point. Had it been the al Qaeda atrocity that many initially suspected, things would’ve been different. Today’s press would’ve been dominated by commentary about ‘Norway’s 9/11’ and the ‘New Nordic Front in the War on Terror’. We would no doubt be told that there was now ‘nowhere to hide’ from Islamic fanatics.
“Is Scotland next” the red tops would’ve asked, as they picked over David Cameron’s latest security review. We would be told that the Glasgow Airport bombing four years ago should have alerted us to a change in the modus operandi of international terror. Columnists would have been arguing that it is because ‘politically correct’ countries like Norway are so naïve about multiculturalism that they have become vulnerable targets for Islamic fanatics. Rebekah Brooks had she still been a Murdoch editor, would have flown to the scene offering free mobile phones to the victims’ parents.
As it happened, of course, this was not an act of Islamic fundamentalist terror, but Christian fundamentalist terror – to the profound embarrassment of many commentators and newspaper editors. Particularly, the Daily Mail’s Melanie Phillips who was cited in Anders Behring Breivik’s “manifesto” (“String me up”, she might have written of her intellectual complicity. “It’s the only language I understand”) Mind you, the Independent’s Robert Fisk was once cited by Osama bin Laden, which just goes to show that you can’t always be sure the right people agree with you when you write opinionated commentary.
But there were no calls for censorship of right wing views, or any crack down in Norway against the anti-immigration parties. Norway provided a text book demonstration of how a civilised country should respond to these rare and random acts of unspeakable barbarity – with stoicism and measure. Despite having been the prime target of the Oslo bombing, the Norwegian Prime Minister, Jens Stoltenberg avoided the temptation to declare another pointless “war on terror” or promulgate an agenda of repressive measures to “protect the people”. Instead he turned this tragic event into an opportunity to unite the country, celebrate liberal values and heal divisions. “The Norwegian response to violence is more democracy, more openness and greater political participation”, he said. The people took his lead, and mounted huge peaceful demonstrations holding flowers to show their respect for the dead and their solidarity behind their values. Unfortunately, that isn’t as newsworthy as a war on terror so Norway slipped into the foreign news pages.
Just compare Britain’s response to 7/7 in 2005, when rather fewer were murdered in the London bombings. Within days, the Home Secretary Charles Clarke, under pressure from Tony Blair and the Sun, had put together an agenda of repressive legislation. Top of the list was 90 day detention for terrorists and the outlawing of what was called “indirect incitement to terrorism” – the nearest Britain has come to introducing thought crime. 90 day detention was eventually dropped after it was realised that this could mean suspects receiving the equivalent of a six month prison sentence, with remission, without being charged with any offence. But Tony Blair had no qualms about abolishing the thousand year old right of habeas corpus – the right not to be held without charge.
A repressive response is precisely what the terrorist is looking for because it engenders hate between communities. In Chris Morris’s brilliant satire on religious terrorism, Four Lions, one of the suicide bombers insists that they should target the local Mosque. That way peaceful Muslims would be roused to anger against the “kuffar”, the government would crack down on them and there would be a religious civil war hastening “the end of days”. The best way to deal with a terrorist is to ignore them, refuse to give them the oxygen of publicity, refuse to credit them with anything other than deranged opportunism.
If only, after 9/11, George W. Bush had travelled the country appealing for calm and urging citizens to hold firm to their democratic values. Instead he promised to get Osama bin Laden “dead or alive”, declared war on international terror, and then invaded Iraq, a country that had no connection whatever to al Qaeda. In doing so, he played right into bin Laden’s hands, igniting a furious response throughout the Middle East to the illegal invasion of a nominally Muslim country.
Of course, there are those who say that it was only because Anders Behring Breivik was a “Christian” bomber rather than a Muslim one, that the response was so measured and responsible. Aren’t far right groups on the march already in Northern Europe? The Freedom Party in the Netherlands, the Sweden Democrats, the True Finns. The Arab News last week slammed the West for hypocrisy, saying that the Norway shooting was played down only because it didn’t fit the ‘racist’ mould of “Islamic terrorism”.
There may be an element of truth in that. Certainly, UK papers which had prematurely pronounced the massacre as the work of al Qaeda, curiously lost interest after it was discovered that the perpetrator was white and right wing. But I don’t believe the Norwegian response would have been markedly different. The security services and the Norwegian police – who were heavily criticised for their delayed reaction to the events, might have stepped up security at immigration points and known Muslim extremists might have been questioned. But there would have been nothing like the British reaction to 7/7.
So, just why has Norway reacted so calmly? Let’s put it the other way: why was Britain’s first reaction a repressive one? Britain is a phlegmatic country with firm values, not unlike Norway. For three decades, Britain took the IRA terror bombings in its stride and even Margaret Thatcher, who was the target of the IRA Brighton bombing in 1984, never proposed detention without trial on the British mainland. Why was Britain so different in 2005?
Perhaps the presence of Rupert Murdoch, the “24th member of Tony Blair’s cabinet” according to ex Number 10 staffer, Lance Price, might have had somethjing to do with it. Tony Blair was obsessed with giving the tabloid press what it wanted. In Norway, they don’t allow foreign proprietors to dictate government policy. But more likely it is that Norway is a small, robust and relatively homogeneous community, used to adversity, and confident in itself and its democracy. Belligerence is a sign of weakness. Let’s hope political leaders learn from Norway’s example, because we will probably be here again.