How to save the world the hard way

Or: How I learned love my Neighbor and start worrying about the Global Civil War

Memorial after the 22/7–2011 terrorist attacks in Oslo, by Bent Tranberg published under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

When the bombs detonated at Brussels international airport two days ago it once again felt oddly personal, even more so than when one of my former students barely escaped with his life at Utøya, Norway in the 7/22 massacre where 77 people lost their lives to another terrorist on the opposite side of the spectrum. Tim, then 18, escaped by swimming to shore, unlike many of his friends. I’ll never forget the anchor on Norwegian live national news saying, somewhat hesitantly: “..and here we can see that some of the people are trying to swim away from the island.” To this day I’ve always wondered if she failed to notice that those were clearly bodies floating in the water in that helicopter shot.

However, although I’ve walked past the other site of the 7/22 bombing (the government buildings in downtown Oslo) many times, I’ve visited the check-in desk in Brussels three times in the last 1 1/2 years. It’s a big hall, somewhat claustrophobic compared to similar areas in other airports. When you go left (as seen from the entrance) toward the gates there used to be a small shop selling candy and souvenirs. The lady behind the counter was very friendly. I bought Belgian chocolate for my children from her twice. I wonder if she’s still alive. To the right there is a waiting hall where I once spent three hours waiting for check-in for my flight. I vaguely remember having that tiny pinprick of apprehension as a bearded man of middle eastern descent sat down on the bench next to me. I felt guilty then, even though it only lasted for a fraction of a second.

I have yet another, even more tenuous link to the European struggle against terror. One of Norway’s most notorious foreign ISIS recruits hails from my home town of Skien (otherwise best known for being the birthplace of Ibsen, who left as soon as he had the chance and never returned). Bastian Vasquez (25) is believed to have been killed in Syria last October after appearing prominently in ISIS propaganda. He was of south American descent, a decent rapper, and childhood friend a colleague at the school where I teach. I think I might have seen him perform once, at the opening of a public park about a quarter mile from my house. If it was him, he was quite good. My colleague describes him as “a nice boy”, who just had trouble finding his place in the world. He is one of thousands of young men and women who have left relatively safe existences in Europe to join ISIS. Quite a few of them are from Norway.

None of these links are significant. I have not yet lost anyone (assuming all my friends in the EU school network in Brussels are OK, their odds are good but I just don’t know yet), you could probably argue that it’s presumptuous of me to claim any emotional closeness to any of the incidents mentioned above. But this is exactly my point. This is what the world is like now, for all of us, particularly in Europe. I live on the front line, but so do we all.

It’s our brothers, sisters and children who are blown up in meaningless attacks meant to destroy our society. But it’s also our brothers, sisters and children who are putting on the suicide vests and pulling the trigger. It feels so close because it is. This isn’t a clash of civilizations. This isn’t just a regional conflict in the Middle East. This is civil war, on a global scale, between those who want destruction of their opposite number (whether they claim to be true Muslims, true Christians or otherwise) and those who don’t believe “bombing the sh** out of” anyone really solves any problem. The terrorists in Oslo and Brussels are diametrically opposed ideologically/religiously (for them the two is the same thing), but they both want the war. The war is here, for all of us.

At my school, the first refugees from Syria has arrived. There are more to come. I have students who believe that the Charlie Hebdo writers belong in hell (although they also believe it was wrong to kill them), and former students who are neo-nazis. My son has a good friend whose father fought on the Iraqi side in the first Gulf war. My daughter’s Kurdish friend probably wouldn’t like him very much, since his commander-in-chief committed genocide against his people in the eighties.

And of course, I have many Norwegian friends who don’t like any of them very much, and would prefer them to take their problems elsewhere. You could argue that from a Norwegian point of view the problem is that all of these people from troubled areas now are our neighbors. An old classmate of mine believes that Islam as an idea must be defeated the way Nazism was defeated in WWII. I do not believe this to be a constructive point of view.

I don’t necessarily oppose a military solution to, say, the current crisis in Syria. Maybe most of the 20000 ISIS fighters there need to be taken off the board in some way. I don’t necessarily believe in the possibility of redemption for everyone. But as this fundamentally isn’t about anything tangible like territory, you can’t win the war long term this way.

We can carpet bomb Syria, we can close our borders and inbreed ourselves to death, we can give up all our personal, political, organizational and religious freedom to our domestic security services in the hope that they can prevent the next suicide bomber, but in the long run it won’t matter. As long as there are young people willing to listen to the demagogues of death the terror will continue.

Like in the Cold war, the time of Mutually Assured Destruction, the only way of winning this game is not to play.

The only way to stop this conflict long term is to stop the recruitment at the source. Which means getting better at reaching out to the disenfranchised youth who end up carrying out the attacks. The people who see dying in Syria or anywhere else wearing a suicide belt as a viable option must be given more reasons to choose otherwise. And as I already stated, they are OUR people, our neighbors, classmates and even friends. Many, many of us are in positions to fight this fight. It might be impossible to win every small battle, but these are our children, they must not remain alone. If you know me, really know me, you are less likely to want to blow me up. It’s that simple. In a perfect world we would spend a fraction of the military budgets on initiatives with this goal in mind, it would be at least as effective in preventing suicide bombings as continuously tightening the security (and slowly degrading the society we were fighting for in the first place) has proved to be.

This is hard because it means compromise, it means agreeing to disagree. It means doing something as civilized as properly accepting into our society people who believe in other things than we do, as long as they follow the laws of the land. This is a somewhat alien thought in 2016, but we actually do this all the time, even now. We just decided (back in 2011) that since we were going to war against the idea of terror, we needed to do less of it. The internet and the media has also been quite unhelpful in this regard: why talk to people we disagree with when we can get our news, politics and dialogue from people who think as we do?

For me personally, fighting this civil war means something as trivial as allowing my student to think that I, as an infidel, belong in hell, as long as he makes no effort to send me there. And not only that, I must make an effort to keep up a personal and professional relationship with him in spite of our differences, in the same way I that I respect my friend on the far right. They both hold viewpoints that most people I know would consider extreme, but unless they start blowing people up they are on the same side in this civil war against terror.

On the day after the Utøya terror attacks the Norwegian prime minister held a speech where he defiantly stated that this attack changed nothing. Norway would still be an open, free society. And most importantly, we would not seek revenge. The terrorist was tried according to existing laws, and is currently imprisoned (in what many think are too cushy conditions) just a couple of miles from my house, another one of those tenuous connections.

What would have happened if George W. Bush had taken a similar approach in the aftermath of 9/11? What has been achieved since then? What has the world in general, and maybe the US people in particular, had to give up? Who is winning this war?

It certainly won’t end in the foreseeable future. There will be more suicide bombings, and as I’ve tried to illustrate by example, they will affect us all in some way. This is what our world is like now. So what side are you fighting on? One holy book tells us to love our enemies. Another says that to kill a man is to kill all of humanity. In the debris of Brussels, Oslo, Paris or Syria it didn’t, in the end, matter which which book said what.

Departure gates at Brussels airport. Taken by the author.