Comparing How Norway and the U.S. Respond to Terror

Norwegians appear to have largely bypassed bloodlust and vengeance

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In the wake of last week's bombing and shooting attacks in Norway, which left 76 people dead, one of the most remarkable developments has been the way Norwegians have managed to avoid the bloodlust and vengeance that swept over the U.S. in the wake of terrorist attacks like 9/11 and the Oklahoma City bombing.

On Wednesday, Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg declared that while the country may beef up its security (there's talk of arming police, for example), Norwegians would combat the terror inflicted by anti-Islam extremist Anders Behring Breivik with more democracy, greater political engagement, and a commitment to freedom of thought, so long as extreme views don't spill over into violence. "I think what we have seen is that there is going to be one Norway before and one Norway after July 22," he said. "But I hope and also believe that the Norway we will see after will be more open, a more tolerant society than what we had before." Other Norwegian politicians have echoed Stoltenberg's words. On Saturday, Norwegian lawmaker Stine Renate Haheim, quoting a friend, informed CNN, "If one man can create that much hate, you can only imagine how much love we as a togetherness can create."

Many ordinary Norwegians are expressing similar sentiments. At a memorial Tuesday in the World Islamic Mission mosque in Oslo, for example, Pakistani-born Imam Najeeb ur Rehman Naz told the AP, "Everyone realizes that terrorism ... doesn't have anything to do with any religion." Norwegians have also responded with flowers--so many, in fact, that Oslo's florists have run out of roses. "Tens of thousands of Norwegians have rejected the suspect's anti-immigrant rhetoric, laying thousands of flowers around the capital in mourning," the AP notes. Norway's Aftenposten reports that membership in youth political parties is growing robustly in the wake of Friday's shooting, and over 21,000 people have joined a Facebook group calling for record-breaking participation in the country's upcoming election. Indeed, if Norwegians are directing their anger at anyone, it appears to be Fox News. An Aftenposten article yesterday noted how Norwegians have been criticizing the U.S. cable network on Facebook and Twitter for initially attributing the Norway attack to Islamic terrorism, and condemning former Fox News host Glenn Beck for comparing the political youth camp that Breivik attacked to a Hitler Youth camp.

To be sure, the days immediately following the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing and the 2001 World Trade Center attacks, like the days following the Norway shooting, witnessed an outpouring of patriotism, tremendous displays of solidarity, and invocations of national ideals. But these domestic terror attacks also elicited more vengeful responses that, so far, appear to be largely absent in Norway.

Compare Norway's response, for example, to some of the reactions that cropped up in the days after Timothy McVeigh bombed a federal government building in Oklahoma City. The Boston Herald, in an editorial entitled, "Send the Bombers to Hell," reflected on the unknown identity of the assailants: "If law enforcement agencies develop evidence linking this bombing to any government--Saddam Hussein's Iraq, or Iran, or any other--President Clinton should retaliate immediately. He should launch a bombing campaign of such ferocity that the guilty country is rendered militarily helpless." As rumors circulated that Islamic terrorists were behind the assault, mosques around the country began receiving threats. The Kansas City Star noted that "cyberspace"--as it was still called at the time--had become a "cesspool of rumors and insults. Hatred toward minorities spilled out from some computer users."

Even President Clinton showed less composure than Norway's Stoltenberg in the aftermath of the horrendous bombing. Clinton told an aide he had a desire to put his fist "through the television" while watching scenes of the carnage, and the Detroit Free Press described how Clinton's hands were "visibly shaking in anger" when he vowed to hunt down the perpetrator on the day of the attack. A little over a week after the bombing, an editorial in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution criticized Clinton and Congress for rushing to pass an anti-terrorist law that could violate civil liberties. "We've gone through panics like this over and over, and each time have lived to regret our actions," the paper wrote. "By now we should understand that even the most righteous anger--perhaps righteous anger most especially--can be a slyly malicious inspiration."

A look at the 9/11 attacks reveals similar sentiments. Reports of hate crimes against Muslims and southeast Asians soared across the U.S. in the weeks after the tragedy, with incidents including the murder of an Indian man in Arizona and the firebombing of a Hindu temple in New Jersey, according to a CNN article at the time. Jingoist sentiment was also widespread. Nearly 90 percent of Americans supported the war in Afghanistan when it was launched in early October 2001 (the 9/11 attacks, of course, weren't carried out by homegrown terrorists like the Oklahoma City bombing and the Norway shooting). M.W. Guzy, writing at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch two days after the attacks, explained why he supported the war effort:

Issuing strongly worded condemnations, then later dragging a few scruffy lunatics into court for a year-long trial, just won't send the appropriate message to our adversaries. Nor will assassinating selected terrorist leaders or 'surgical strikes' on specific targets.

The United States has come under full-scale attack, and it's time to respond accordingly. The season for shrewd detective work has ended; swift and massive military retaliation is called for.

So, what explains Norway's differing reaction? Bernt Aardal, a Norwegian political scientist, tells Reuters that in small countries like Norway, which has a population of only five million, people tend to band together in the face of attacks such as these. "The belief in punitive reactions ... is much stronger in Britain and the United States than in Norway," he adds. But Fredrik Erixon, the director of the European Center for International Political Economy in Brussels, isn't sure the mood will last. "The fantastic show of support for open society and the values of democracy will inevitably fade away and be overshadowed by suspicion of the unknown" or anti-immigrant sentiment, he tells BloombergThe Boston Globe's H.D.S. Greenway disagrees, arguing that in Norway, home of the Nobel Peace Prize, conflict resolution is part of the country's "national DNA."

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.