The Oslo Opportunity, Part 1: Talking about Terrorism

In the weeks since the terrorist attacks in Norway, I’ve read a lot of articles and op-eds attempting to flesh out their implications and identify the tensions that led to them.  Though the attacks were truly horrific, they present us with a much-needed opportunity to discuss a topic that is too often ignored in the post-9/11 world: the rise of right wing and anti-Muslim extremism.

The discussion resulting from the attacks has brought up some points that I’d like to further develop.  The discourse has also lacked in some respects, and I’d like to bring up some new thoughts for consideration as well.

In the next five posts, I’ll elaborate on the terminology of terrorism, Europe’s response to its increasing Muslim population, the role of American activists in shaping Islamophobia in Europe, FOX News’ hypocritical response to Breivik’s Christianty, and my optimism about the United States’ ability to avoid the widespread and entrenched prejudice—and now violence—we’ve seen in Europe.

Talking about terrorism

Anders Behring Breivik

In reports from the New York Times, NPR, and other well-respected news organizations, we’ve heard the suspected perpetrator, Anders Behring Breivik, referred to as the ‘attacker’ or ‘killer’ and his actions as ‘violent extremism.’  These classifications are clearly true, but we must also acknowledge that Breivik is also a ‘terrorist’ and that his actions are ‘terrorism.’  Given the ease with which the media and political commentators today jump to label violent attacks as ‘terrorism,’ it might seem surprising that they were much more wary of using the same terminology for the Norway event.

Why not call this attack what it is?  I think it’s because the word ‘terrorism’ has lost its original and intended meaning, and instead come to be understood as ‘violent Islamic extremism.’  I’d like to make the case as to why the Norway attacks are indeed terrorism, and why we must call it terrorism.

Here is the definition of ‘terrorism’ under U.S. law:

1) “premeditated, 2) politically- motivated 3) violence (or intimidation) 4) perpetrated against non-combatant targets 5) by subnational groups or clandestine agents”

For terrorists, high body counts are not their main concern.  More concerned about symbolism, their highest priority is to instill fear and destroy values and ideas.  Terrorism’s victims aren’t only those who die or are injured.  As Georgetown scholar Bruce Hoffman says, “designed to have far-reaching psychological repercussions beyond the immediate victim or target.”

It’s easy to think about how the 9/11 attacks fit into this definition.  So let’s look at the double Norway attacks to see how they fit the definition:

1) Breivik’s well-coordinated attack had been planning his attack for a long time—he even had a 1,500 page manifesto to “justify” it.
2) Concerned with the increased immigration of Muslims into Europe and his government’s failure to address the problem and willingness to submit to multiculturalism (his sentiment, not mine), he attacked a government building and a party camp for future political leaders.
3) After blowing up the building in downtown Oslo, he masqueraded as a police officer on Utoya island, offering comfort and safety before stalking through the woods and shore shooting teenagers.  His attacks claimed over 70 lives.
4) His victims were ordinary citizens—government workers and politically active young people.
5) He carried this attack out on his own, secretly planning it without law enforcement’s knowledge.

This is a plea to the media (and ordinary citizens) for consistency—we must call these attacks ‘terrorism.’  Doing otherwise is dangerous because it makes us take these attacks less seriously than attacks committed by Muslim terrorists.  No matter the ideology motivating them, terrorists and their actions should be treated with equal concern.

In my next post, I’ll talk about why Europe’s problem with Islamophobia is much bigger than in the U.S.

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One thought on “The Oslo Opportunity, Part 1: Talking about Terrorism

  1. Excellent post. Many good points about inconsistencies and bias. I wonder if the media avoids the terrorism tag for Breivik’s actions because he reportedly acted along and thus is not a “group”, as your cited definition of terrorism requires. And yet, to your point, the media seemed to easily and quickly attach the terrorist tag to Dr. Hasan after his Ft. Hood attack even though he apparently acted alone. The only major difference between Breivik and Hasan is one is a caucasian and Christian and the other is arab and Muslim.

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