Learning from Norway: A Measured Response to a National Tragedy

The bombing of government buildings in central Oslo, and killings at the Labour party’s summer camp on the nearby island of Utoya, have shocked Norway and the world. Carefully planned and executed with devastating effect, apparently by 32-year-old Norwegian national Anders Behring Breivik, these acts were deeply troubling, and anything but arbitrary.

One week later, what to make of it? Behind the headlines, can any kind of meaning be ascribed?

Late this spring I spent two weeks in Norway, and left the country deeply impressed with both the nature of its social democracy and the quality of its public infrastructure and environmental life more broadly. As someone very favourably disposed towards Norway, I would in no way seek to belittle or minimize the individual or collective consequences of this tragic episode. That said, I also believe that actions of this type must be very carefully considered and assessed.

Although the motives and techniques associated with terrorism have evolved over time, political extremism and religious violence have been with the world for millennia. However distressing these expressions of anger, alienation, or deep disaffection – whatever the animus – it is important to keep the significance of such events in perspective. Terrorist incidents remain relatively rare, and as generators of mass casualties pale in comparison to war, pestilence, famine, and poor public health, to name just a few of the issues which warrant much more concern than they generally receive.

Put another way, persistent underdevelopment, state failure and abiding insecurity kill tens of millions of people annually; terrorism kills thousands, and not every year even at that.

Car accidents represent a much more serious threat to personal well-being.

In my view, it is the reaction of Norwegian people and their government which has been more instructive than either the interpretations of the violence itself, or the various musings on the conventional and social media treatment of this story.

To be sure, terrorism is fuelled by saturation press coverage. Because commercial web sites, newspapers, radio and television exist mainly in order to sell audiences to advertisers, sensational incidents such as this tend to attract huge interest, and that connection is certainly worth noting. So, too, is the knee-jerk reaction by so-called experts to pin the blame on Islamic groups purportedly bent on revenge.

Still, observations about trends in communications and journalism in my mind pale in comparison to the demonstration of steadfastness, determination and commitment on the part of the Norwegian people and their Prime Minister, Jens Stoltenberg. The public and political solidarity, and insistence upon sharing the grief and maintaining an open, democratic and inclusive society without recourse to excessive over-reaction or extreme security measures has been nothing short of inspiring.

Norway’s approach to dealing with this type of outrage contrasts markedly to that of the USA post 9/11, or even the UK post 7/7.

It to date has been much more measured, calm and reflective, and seems to suggest a widely-held conviction that a healthy public discourse is the best response to dissent over the changing face of Europe, or, for that matter, any other potentially divisive issue of public policy.

Norway’s Muslim community, feeling understandably vulnerable and exposed at this juncture, must take some solace from this admirable cultural attribute.

It is also worth noting  that Norway, and not by coincidence, has chosen to play a leading  role internationally by encouraging collaboration in the pursuit of solutions to such pressing global challenges as climate change, diminishing biodiversity, food and water scarcity, conflict resolution, and so forth.

Unlike many other NATO members, wholesale participation in what was until recently referred to as the Global War on Terror has not been at the forefront of  Norway’s foreign policy priorities, notwithstanding limited engagements in Afghanistan and Libya.

In that respect, and indeed in terms of many other domestic and international policy choices, Norway’s willingness and capacity to initiate, to respond and to focus  provides an example worthy of further study and, in some cases, emulation.

Canada and Canadians could learn much.