Saturday, July 23, 2011

An Open Letter To Norway

Yesterday, as you know, Norway was attacked by twin terrorist attacks, a pair of bombings in Oslo and a shooting on nearby Utoya Island. At least 92 are now confirmed dead.

For most readers here- the Americans, Brits, Spaniards, Danes, anyone from the Middle East, even the Mexicans- you more or less know the drill. It's happened in recent memory, and you have at least a dim view of what happens next.

For Norway, though, this is completely out of the blue. This is the single worst thing to have happened to them since World War 2. Norway is one of those completely innocuous countries, along with Belgium, Canada, Sweden, New Zealand and maybe a few others, an attack on whom is talked about largely as a joke, the action of someone so utterly war-happy that even these places seem a viable target, to be hit somewhere between the invasions of Antarctica and Mars.

Apparently, we are no longer joking.

The Norwegian people, distraught as they are, have shown themselves to be surprisingly level-headed in the face of such events. With an explosion, gunshots, and the sight of a man disguised as a police officer at a youth meeting full of Norway's best and brightest freshly seared into their heads calling people over and shooting them one by one, Oslo conducted a simple evacuation, as if this were a giant fire drill, and the shooter was apprehended, alive at that. He is Anders Behring Breivik, a 32-year-old man described as a right-wing extremist with ties to militant groups. A more complete profile, perhaps a bit too complete actually, can be found here. (The possibility of a second shooter is being explored.)

Now comes the aftermath. Norway, you may not have experienced this before, As an American, though, I have. Domestic, homegrown terrorism. We know that one. Oklahoma City. The Atlanta Olympic bombings. Unsuccessful attempts from shoe bombers and underwear bombers and every nut with a gun and a militia. The most analogous attack to yours is probably a combination of Oklahoma City and the 2008 hotel attacks in Mumbai, India.

So take it from an American... and don't take it from an American. This is, again, the worst thing to happen to you since World War 2, and in the worst thing to happen to us since World War 2-- 9/11-- we messed up the aftermath. We messed it up big-time. Learn from our mistakes.

In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, we Americans told ourselves, if we allow 9/11 to change our lifestyle, the terrorists have won. If that was the benchmark, the terrorists won so handily that we cancelled the rest of the season in shame. Our lives changed. They changed drastically. Our banks changed. Our airports changed. Our schools changed. Most importantly, our attitudes changed. We allowed the fear, the anger, the... well, the terror, to consume us and cloud our judgment. We lashed out at anything remotely, even tangentially connected to anything threatening. We went to war with people who were not even responsible for our plight and questioned the patriotism of anyone who objected, war that to this day we are still waging. Anyone that matched the description of the attackers, no matter how peaceful and kind they actually were, instantly became The Enemy and was treated as such.

9/11 was a decade ago and the man who plotted the attacks is dead by our hands, yet there are those of us who are actually more afraid now than they were on 9/11 itself.

And for our trouble, we have gained such a reputation that the website Wikitravel includes a page for non-American travellers about how to avoid setting foot in the United States for even so much as a refueling stop. Great care is taken on the page to instruct on the convoluted contortions a traveller from the Asian Pacific must take to avoid passing through Hawaii or Alaska.

For you, you don't have the factor of a minority group having perpetrated the attack, as much as most of the media so readily assumed. (That's why yesterday's update here was so brief. When you strip away all the speculation early in such an event, you're not left with much.) The attacker was the same blond white profile as the rest of the country. So that won't be a problem for you. However, the emotional aftermath is universal. That is where you must exercise caution.

Do not give in to fear. Do not pass laws for the sake of catharsis. Before you take future preventative acts, take a step back, take a deep breath, and calm and center yourselves. Only take action with a clear and rational head. Doing otherwise can and will result in legislation that may feel good at the time, but that you will soon come to loathe.

Ambrose Bierce once said, "Speak when you are angry, and you'll make the best speech you'll ever regret." Heed his words. This is especially important for those of you who happened to be on Utoya Island yesterday, those of you attending a meeting for youth members of the ruling Labor Party.

You on Utoya have a future in politics. If and when you run for office, odds are your presence on the island will to some degree consume your campaign. Don't let it consume your policy, and don't let it consume your life.

Don't do what we did.

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