Oslo and the Burden of Stopping Massacres

The shootings in Norway, like the attacks on 9/11, are a reminder that we're our own last line of defense

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For most people in the United States, Canada, and Western Europe, self-defense needn't be a daily preoccupation. It is rare that someone is murdered by a stranger. Insured against robbery, banks instruct their tellers to hand over cash if they get so much as a threatening note. On city streets muggers are told, "Take what you like, just don't hurt me." In suburbs, families who return home to signs of a prowler sit a few doors down in their cars and call for law enforcement. We've unburdened ourselves. The average citizen need never defend the city walls, or join a posse to pursue a horse thief, or patrol his neighborhood. Even wars are now fought by professional soldiers in all-volunteer armies.  

So we forget. That there isn't always someone to call. That sometimes we're confronted by horrors even if we didn't volunteer for them. That we each therefore bear ultimate responsibility for defending ourselves and our communities.

It is our inescapable burden.

The people of Littleton, Colorado learned that lesson when two Columbine High School students went on their rampage. On 9/11, the passengers on Flight 93 understood it in real time, and heroically marked the beginning of a new American era in air travel: never again are passengers going to submit to a hijacking without fighting back. The victims of Virginia Tech were confronted with this hard truth too. All they could do to defend themselves was barricade doors.   

As a society, we can only do so much to stop unhinged killers. Humanity is unlikely ever to be rid of them. Sometimes they'll succeed in their murderous enterprises.

There is evil in the world.

I am nevertheless struck by this passage from the New York Times account of the gunman's attack in the Oslo, Norway massacre: "Dressed as a police officer, he announced that he had come to check on the security of the young people who were attending a political summer camp there, many of them the children of members of the governing Labor Party," the newspaper reported. "He gathered the campers together and for some 90 hellish minutes he coolly and methodically shot them, hunting down those who fled. At least 85 people, some as young as 16, were killed."

There is no way to stop a determined man from turning a gun on innocents. But I wonder: Is there a way to react so that a lone gunman cannot carry out a 90 minute massacre of 85 people? Could it be accomplished without adverse unintended consequences if a marginally bigger percentage of people armed themselves? Or even if they just changed their attitudes in the same fashion as American air travelers after 9/11? In an age of terrorism need all our mindsets change?

After massacres and disasters, governments ask themselves, "What laws can we pass so that this is less likely to happen again?" It's a perilous question. Carnage often leads to irrational policy. But attempts at an answer are inevitable. More often than not, mine is, "It's unwise to rely only on the government." It's an impulse that is often mocked when cautious types are seen buying emergency supplies, or organizing disaster drills, or scoping out unattended bags at the train station, or applying for a concealed weapons permit and gun safety classes. But it beats trying to say safer by launching foreign wars and infringing on civil liberties. And I suspect the mockery is often a defense mechanism against a hard truth: that there is no entity that can give us the degree of safety we imagined having; that re-burdening ourselves is sadly necessary.


Image credit: Reuters
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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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