As news broke of the tragic terrorist attacks suffered by Norway in the afternoon of July 22nd, the U.S. media began weaving it into a greater American story. A Wall Street Journal editorial posted immediately after the attacks began with an anecdote about the power of jihad. Jennifer Rubin of The Washington Post wrote in a blog post, “This is a sobering reminder for those who think it’s too expensive to wage a war against jihadists.”
Later that same day, Anders Breivik, a Norwegian, was arrested for the attacks. As more information was discovered about Breivik, he continued to break the jihadist mold. Breivik is politically conservative, a Christian and a Norwegian nationalist deeply disturbed by Europe’s tolerance of Middle Eastern immigration. When his rambling, 1500-page political manifesto and an instructional YouTube video were discovered shortly after the attack, it became clear that his political and religious beliefs motivated him.
Breivik challenges the American image of terrorism. Met with that challenge, U.S. media largely passed on the opportunity to broaden our understanding of terrorism and break down cultural stereotypes surrounding it, and instead dropped coverage of the attack and Breivik altogether. Those who continue to cover the story often refrain from describing him as a “terrorist” in favor of more culturally neutral words like “extremist,” “crazy” and “lone wolf.”
For those conservative media that cover terror and religion extensively, Breivik is an even bigger problem. After the New York Times referred to Breivik as a “Christian Extremist” in the front-page headline of its July 23rd edition (the headline has since been changed online), Bill O’Reilly spent several days rejecting the notion that Breivik is a Christian. Several blogs have invoked the ”No true Scotsman” fallacy along with O’Reilly to repudiate Breivik’s Christianity, and some have suggested that he was Muslim in effect because he adhered to a violent ideology. Others have simply asserted that Breivik is crazy in an attempt to detach his philosophies from his actions, despite evidence to the contrary. O’Reilly has also criticized the New York Times as trying to diminish the Christian philosophy, construct a Christian analogue to Al Qaeda and downplay the “Muslim threat.”
There’s more at stake here for culturally conservative writers and commentators than the purity of their religion. Anders Breivik was heavily influenced by American conservatism. He repeatedly cited a handful of popular American, anti-Muslim bloggers in his manifesto. While Breivik’s actions have frequently been attributed to a growing intolerance of Islamic culture throughout Europe, it’s clear that Breivik considered the U.S. to be the last remaining stronghold of militant Christianity — a shining city upon a prejudiced hill.
Many cultural conservatives, then, find themselves in the precarious position of defending Breivik’s political philosophy regardless of his behavior. And they’re up to the task. Conservative political commentator Pat Buchanan wrote in a column, “As for a climactic conflict between a once-Christian West and an Islamic world … Breivik may be right.” Following suit, the National Review‘s John Derbyshire (cited in Breivik’s manifesto) argued a thorough defense of Breivik’s beliefs in the July 29th edition of his National Review podcast, saying among many other things, “The upshot of the manifesto is that Breivik thinks European civilization is under threat of being swamped by Muslims and other incompatibles … So far as what’s happening is concerned and who’s making it happen, I’m on the same page as Anders Breivik and so are a great many Western conservatives.” The most disturbing part is that Derbyshire is correct, and we’re left to hope that the only reason he would defend a terrorist is if one killed people on behalf of his values.
While the U.S. media was quick to Americanize the tragic events that took place nearly two weeks ago, Norway is still grieving. And while we have much to learn from ourselves in the wake of this attack, perhaps there is something Norwegian that we should make our own. On Friday, July 22nd, Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg spoke amid grief and angst to his country and the world saying, “The answer to violence is even more democracy.”
As we seek to draw a parallel between our lives and the lives of those in Norway, let it be this: In its time of deepest suffering, Norway has called for a more inclusive government, a more engaged citizenry and more extensive freedoms for all in the name of democracy; ten years after ours, American democracy has depreciated. Unlike the Norwegians, we had an external enemy to pursue, and it’s led to the persecution of a minority of our citizens at home. We drastically increased state surveillance in the name of patriotism. We breached the Constitution in order to torture soldiers, American and otherwise, under the pretense of national security. The United States has fortified itself against the Middle East not in the name of democracy, but at its cost. When Norwegian society was challenged, it reaffirmed its values. When American society was challenged, we did too.