The Sunday Times

July 31st, 2011

Stop wallowing in Norway’s grief – it was not our tragedy

The mass murder in Norway is unspeakable. Unfortunately a great deal too much has been said about it. From the moment after Anders Behring Breivik’s bomb exploded in Oslo, the international media and the commentariat have rushed in with a cacophony of reports, speculation, conspiracy theories and instant interpretation.

It has been sickening. Most obviously offensive was the media’s obsessive attention to every horrifying detail in Norway. Awful, too, was the public’s appetite for it — no better than rubbernecking at a motorway pile-up. We did not need to know every last detail of the search for the dead teenagers, or their growing death toll minute by minute, or precisely where their bodies were found. We did not need to have the newspapers and the mass media dominated by all this, day after day. The Daily Telegraph even had an online section dedicated to Norway, and most news websites had live coverage and running commentary, with new video clips and images. It reminded me of a disgraceful map of Dunblane, published in a respectable newspaper after the massacre of 16 primary school children in 1996, carefully marking each house where a child had been lost: the intrusion was breathtaking.

I admit it is strange for a journalist to take this line; newspapermen and women are supposed to be determined to tell the whole story and cover all the angles. One would not expect a journalist to shrink from reporting on the Cambodian killing fields or the Rwandan massacres. But I have always hated what seems to me like dwelling on unnecessary detail, using horror as a kind of background infotainment. The media are not always guilty of this: we don’t see shots of starving Somali babies actually passing the point of death, or their mothers’ tears, although we see enough to understand the crisis there.

Worse still has been an outpouring of sentimentality (unlike the dignified restraint of the bereaved Norwegians) from commentators in other countries talking sanctimonious nonsense. Typical was the outcry of Joel Achenbach of The Washington Post: “We are all Norwegians now.”

We are not in any sense Norwegians now, however much we may sympathise with their grief. We didn’t think we were all suddenly Americans after the Columbine high school shootings or all Scottish after the Dunblane shootings. We were just very shocked and sympathetic.

Nor was it true to claim, as several rhetoricians have, that Norway will never be the same again. One even declaimed that “Norway’s history begins tomorrow”. Norwegians have not had a mass senseless killing before — hardly surprising since their population is less than 5m and such atrocities are extremely rare — but they must be well aware that such things do occasionally happen. After all, they have some bestselling crime writers who express an extremely bleak view of psychopathic killers. Although Breivik’s mass murder has shocked Norwegians, it cannot have changed their world-view. While they may want to review their policing procedures, they are already well aware of the threat of sudden, unexpected violence, as is every country in the world after many terrorist attacks.

Worse yet is the attempt to impose explanations on what happened. This has been depressing because it is self-evidently too soon to do so; there isn’t enough evidence yet even for the Norwegian police.

At first there was a flurry of horror at the suggestion that Breivik was connected to international right-wing groups and had even been nurtured in Britain by the English Defence League. The Norwegian police kept saying there was so far no evidence, despite extensive investigation, that Breivik had links to other like-minded cells in Norway or Britain. They think he was probably acting alone. This has not stopped others proclaiming that he was working with international right-wing terrorists.

Clearly it would suit some Muslim sensibilities to believe there are white European terrorists, driven by an anti-immigrant obsession to commit acts of organised international terrorism. That would establish a kind of parity of atrocity between Muslims and non-Muslims, which might make good PR for Muslim groups. But there is no evidence for this, at least not so far. Nonetheless, the day after the Norwegian police yet again said they had found no evidence that Breivik was working with extremist groups, Quilliam, the British foundation founded by reformed Islamists to combat extremism, put out a press release entitled “Symbiosis between anti-Muslim extremists and Islamist extremists”. The foundation said that while Breivik was not very devout, “like Islamists” (terrorists) he was misusing Christianity for terrorist ends. Quilliam recommended that governments reassess the threats posed by anti-Muslim extremists and develop a strategy to counter them.

These are complex matters, yet it seems manipulative of Quilliam to link such ideas with Breivik’s apparently solitary butchery and certainly to do so before the facts are established. Besides, there is no need for any “wake-up call” for security services about the dangers of the right wing in Europe, whatever noisy commentators have said. It seems rather an overreaction of Europol to set up a taskforce of 50 experts to investigate non-Islamist threats in Scandinavian countries. The threat of radical right-wing extremism has been endlessly researched for years and most governments have taken steps to deal with it.

The right response to such an atrocity is to respect the grief of the bereaved by saying only what must be said. Outsiders ought to wait for the facts to be known before even thinking of holding forth about wake-up calls, lessons to be learnt and the nature of terrorism. We cannot hope yet to understand what happened in Norway or why; perhaps it may never be comprehensible.

What people could do is restrain their urge to impose meaning on what may well prove to be meaningless — just another senseless mass killing by a human with a terrible defect. It is profoundly depressing that these murders have been used by so many people, so quickly and in so many different ways, to talk up their various interests. That is a tragic defect of human nature, too.