Terror and politics


By Liv Tørres, director of the Pathfinders for Peaceful, Just and Inclusive Societies at NYU’s Center on International Cooperation.

Photo: (Shutterstock / Hans Vatne Hansen)

It was the afternoon of July 22, 2011. On my last day at work at Norway’s Labor Ministry in Oslo, there was only one thing left for me to do after packing up my office and bidding farewell to my colleagues: hand over my keycard. As I picked up my car in the garage, my colleague waited for me outside the Prime Minister’s offices. At 3.25 p.m., a 2,000-pound bomb placed in a car next to my colleague blew up. She and seven others were killed, and large sections of the government quarters were destroyed.

My first thought as I climbed out of the building just minutes after the explosion was that the surreal scene looked like Beirut during Lebanon’s civil war. As I climbed over destroyed walls, security systems, and wires on my way out, I quickly realized that this was no accident. I could see straight through the buildings around me, all blown to pieces. My colleague was gone. The air was deadly still, yet somehow shaking, and small fragments of burnt paper and ash floated down like snowflakes. Later, I learned what the terrorist, Anders Behring Breivik, did next. He continued on to the Labor Party youth camp at Utøya outside Oslo where he massacred 69 people, mainly children and young people. I had been there just the day before for a public event, and several of the youth who had taken part in it were killed. Friends and colleagues were gone. Kids of friends were killed. Friends were injured for life. It took six days before the pieces of my colleagues were identified.

Inside Norway’s Labor Ministry following the terror attack on July 22, 2011. (Photo: Liv Tørres)

Tragically, this happens all over the world — often with greater loss of life. Norway is, however, a small nation and a peaceful one, where wealth is relatively equally distributed, social capital and trust is high, and most conflicts are solved with dialogue and debates rather than weapons.

Our first reactions to the terror attack were those of unity and solidarity. We did not respond with fear, intolerance and isolation, or with large-scale security clampdowns. Instead, we underlined that this had been an attack on all and on democracy, then built our response around the principles of democracy, tolerance, freedom of speech, and human rights. With fear of creating cleavages and tensions, few brought up debates around immigration or multiculturalism, or the terrorist’s previous party membership in the Norwegian right-wing party.

For a while, the nation’s response was constructive and inspiring. Political parties and civil society organizations experienced a flow of new members. Voluntary activities increased. Many of the youth who survived Utøya became more politically engaged. Tolerance levels increased. And we were proud to run a court case with respect for the terrorist’s rights.

In the decade since, however, polarization and tensions have increased. Extremists have become more active, threatening, and aggressive. Most will agree that our preparedness plans and apparatus are still not sufficient. And those of us who were there that day also mostly agree that our preparedness plans will never be good enough if we focus only on security.

What draws people to extremism is relatively uniform, whether its right-wing extremism, religious extremism, or left-wing extremism: nationalism as well as opposition to women’s liberation, immigration, and multiculturalism all contribute to their recruitment. And they spread their ideas online globally. Breivik was inspired by Timothy McVeigh and the Oklahoma City bombing. Breivik, in turn, influenced the attack in Christchurch, New Zealand 2019, which fed a new attack in Norway the same year.

Extremist attacks are political, and we must treat them as such. Police officers and helicopters are important in terror prevention and response strategies, but unless we create inclusive, non-discriminatory societies with dialogue and tolerance, we will fail in this battle. And yes, terrorists are those who both share extremist thinking and a willingness to act on it, fueled by weapons, cruelty, and, in some cases, psychiatric conditions. But unless we pick up the fight on political values, we will fall short of stopping the spread of extreme ideas and the ground on which the terrorists feed. We learned this the hard way in Norway.

Here, we failed to transition our response from the initial “This is an attack on democracy” to remedies that would have addressed what the killings actually were: Attacks on the Labor Party for its policies promoting tolerance, multiculturalism, and equality. We were scared of making our response into a “party-political” fight and hence didn’t make it political, didn’t discuss political values, and didn’t respond with action plans. In hindsight, our reactions seemed like we had been hit by a natural disaster rather than a right-wing terror attack.

Tolerance, respect, equality, and dialogue are some of the most important values and tools of our democracies and should be integrated into school curricula and government action plans. Action plans to fight extremism must aim to reduce inequality and promote inclusion; reduce access to weapons; require political parties to respect truth and tolerance; compel civil society organizations to promote dialogue and the media to explore ways to bind everyone to evidence-based broadcasting. Action plans to stop hate speech are also crucial, as are systems to monitor the dark internet and assuring that no public funding goes to hate groups. And a public helpline and conflict resolution system where people can seek help when they see signs of radicalization is important.

Yes, our democracy and country were attacked that day I crawled out of a bombed building. But the killing of 77 of friends and colleagues was first and foremost the violent response to our commitment to tolerance, solidarity, multiculturalism, and inclusion. In order to stop the next attacks, democracies must recognize what they face, and share experiences, solutions, and resources to prevent them.