Sunday, July 24, 2011


I was shocked to read about the tragedy in Oslo and nearby Utoeya. Norway is not a country you associate with violence. Their stiffest penalty under the law is 21 years in prison. The worst that police usually contend with are breaking up drunken brawls. The kind of massacre that went on there doesn't seem possible, as though we will all wake up and find it was just a disturbing dream.

In reading the initial news reports, there was an immediate suspicion of "al-Qaeda" terrorism. Maybe that wasn't an unreasonable assumption, given that at least some of the native population was not pleased about the influx of Muslim immigrants, and there have been conflicts about Muslim religious laws versus the laws of the country throughout all of the Netherlands. However, in a twist of fate, the person responsible was not a Muslim, not associated with al-Qaeda--he was, in fact, anti-Muslim, and anti-immigration. You would not look at the suspect's photo and think "terrorist". That should give us reason to pause.

I recall growing up, that I would hear at home and in school about "talking to strangers". Strangers who lure you into their car and then take you away and kill you, or whatever they're supposed to do. People who would put razor blades in Halloween candy. If you believed the movies they showed you, and the lectures in class, anyone who you didn't know, especially if they were "different" or appeared "shifty", clearly fell into this category and were criminals. Similarly, there were assumptions about certain "neighborhoods". To this day, I am continually amazed at the unawareness about perceptions of "otherness". I think of older family members, former co-workers, and others who I know and deal with who work side by side with others in diverse environments every day, with no conflict. Yet, you will still hear them make statements like, "That used to be a good neighborhood until the blacks moved in." And there's absolutely no awareness of the racism of that statement, no understanding that it's not the "blacks" that make a neighborhood unsafe, it's usually the economic and social conditions of the area. We're not talking about neo-Nazis; we're talking about your average nice old man or lady who has lived his or her life in a suburban neighborhood in a very socially "normal" way.

In spite of all this negative mythology, the facts are quite different. It is incredibly unlikely that strangers are waiting around corners to grab you. Statistics show that most child abductions are not committed by strangers, they're committed by family members, friends, or neighbors. Your kid isn't dumb enough to get in a car with a stranger; they are likely to get into a car with someone they know, and think they can trust. Similarly, just as much crime occurs among the "privileged white" segment of society. They're also more likely to be the ones buying drugs; after all, they have the money for it. Boredom plus money usually equals trouble in the adolescent set.

Back to Norway. The latest "outsider" group has been the Muslims. After 9/11, the cultural myth suggested that every Muslim was suspect, they were all extremists by definition and operatives for al-Qaeda. If you don't believe that, you just have to recall all the nonsense and uproar over the "Ground Zero Mosque" or the assumption that President Obama was really a Muslim. (Not that it matters if he really was, but that was something usually included in a laundry list of negatives by his opponents). Again, the fact is that Islam is not a violent religion, and its adherents are not all extremists. In fact, the overwhelming majority are not extremists. Yes, there are violent extremist cells that should be monitored, and are being monitored. But the attacks on Norway show it's not just those who are Muslim with extremist views. It's also those who profess to be Christian.

There is a lot of Christian extremism out there. The most violent of them tend to be associated with white supremacist groups or ideologies. It is clear that these groups do not represent the whole of Christianity, or even the Christian message. But--if you are a Christian--do you want people to look at the Norway events and assume that all Christians are terrorists? The young man responsible was described as being a fundamentalist Christian with right-wing ideologies. And--he was Norwegian. He was one of their own, not a foreign national. (Incidentally--another report says he was a freemason. I don't know which version is true, but I can similarly imagine the ignorant outpouring against "secret societies", and "occultism" that will ensue if that proves to be true).

This case has something in common with the shooting of Gabrielle Giffords; in both cases, the people involved were psychotic. I don't know what the diagnosis will prove to be for Anders Breivik, but there has to be a certain amount of blind paranoia and delusion to take the ideologies he espoused and take them to that extreme. There is a component of humanness missing there, that is a trademark of the sociopath. In short--these are individuals who are sick. And--when these kinds of atrocities happen, it usually centers around an individual who is mentally sick. It has everything to do with the person, and nothing to do with the group they belong to, unless the group openly espouses violence. And still--you can't take the characteristics of that group and apply that to everyone with the same characteristic (e.g., saying Al-Qaeda is made up of Muslims, therefore all Muslims espouse the views of al-Qaeda).

We tend to want to blame groups in such cases, as the attack of the psychotic is so random, so unexpected, it preys upon our worst fears. We start to study the psychotic individual, and his characteristics, and our sense of self-protection makes us wary of others with similar characteristics. We think we can protect ourselves from such future events in this way. But it is a fear response; it does not represent the reality, and usually creates more conflict and violence.

There are components of this that make me think of the "critical thinking" discussion occurring online where I teach, which I still plan to address. For now--just remember those who are suffering in Norway, who have lost loved ones, have been injured, or are traumatized from being there. It's a sobering reminder of how one person can do so much damage, and also of the sad fact that so much good could have been done with that passion instead. Humans have great potential for both.

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