Norway – jumping to conclusions

Labour MP Tom Harris shook up the sensitive elements of Twitter with his reaction to Norway’s bombing and shooting tragedy. His two tweets in question, which kickstarted the keyboard warrioring across Left and Right were:

“Even after Oslo, we’ll still have the apologists for terrorism saying it was caused by “foreign policy” or by “disrespect to the Prophet”.

“If I have unfairly accused militant Islamists for Oslo attacks I apologise and hope it does not interfere with their ongoing charity work.”

It doesn’t take too many Google searches to find blogs where conclusions (and prejudices) are well and truly exposed:

“The Norwegian people need to get rid of their Leftist treasonous government and display some of that old viking blood. Appeasing Islamic aggression hasn’t work. It’s time for Norway to stand against Islamic Imperialism!”

It is easy to wander around messageboards, forums, chatrooms, to see the thought processes which initially linked the attacks to Islamist terrorists, or linked somehow to al Qaeda. It tapped into assumptions and prejudices many of us shared. When I read the details of the news, I couldn’t help but groan. To a Facebook status implying it was Islamic terrorists, I leapt into automatic world-view keyboard warrior. “It was carried out by someone pissed off at the West invading their country,” I posted, fresh with the anti-Libya rage I have held since the start of that particular adventure. On a politics forum I visit, the implied assumption of an Islmaic attack hung around every post.

The man accused of carrying out both attacks. Anders Behring Breivik, does not have the appearance of a radicalised convert. It could be, as more details are known, that he is a crazed, lone individual whose actions come from deep seated concerns of his own. Nationalism, perhaps, such as it might exist in Norway. Despite the assumption jumping, it does not hold too many hallmarks of what would be called a ‘typical’ attack in the Madrid or Bali or London models.

Have we been conditioned, since 9 September 2011, into this automatic unease, this discreet prejudice? Tom Harris, of course, was flamed by the usual suspects who read what they wanted to read; he did not blame “Muslims”, if he actually blamed anyone at all. That does not absolve us of every accusation. The easy and convenient labelling comes from years of conditioning by the media, from whom ‘divide and rule’ retains its news gathering charm.

The existing threat from extremists on all sides keeps us vigil, aware, and ultimately frames how our Governments decide the levels of civil rights and freedoms we can enjoy. We have this situation completely wrong. If Breivik turns out to have no connections to Islamist terrorism, how we reconcile our own beliefs is one thing; how our Governments conclude reconsiderations of civil liberty legislation will be quite another.

11 September, 2001

“Someone’s declared war on America. Turn on the news, any news, any channel, it’s everywhere. Car bombs, planes flying into buildings, do it, it’s crazy.”

We all have these memories and recollections. “Where were you when…” We time travellers, visitors from the future watching endless repeats of the initial attacks, the aftermath; foreknowledge being a terrible thing.

How does timetravel seem now, with all of history expanded out around us with its gore and death and apparent seamless planning? Would we tell office workers in New York to stay well clear of the World Trade Centres completely? How many parents of soldiers killed in Afghanistan could be warned in time?

Timetravel seems a concept flawed enough without adding the realities of moral choices. How many dead Iraqis could have been saved for the want of the world turning in a different way on 10th September, eight years ago?

Of course, all the memories we have of that day are tainted by our very particular circumstances. The woman at my then place of work joking, “I hope my pilot has better eyesight than the one who has just crashed into the World Trade Centre”, had no idea what catastrophe would follow. Nobody did. Not entirely sure the other woman I worked with had any idea of reality at all when she declared with absolute sincerity that one effective way to beat Al-Qaeda would be to purposely mispronounce Osama Bid Laden’s name. I remember her saying it as clear as any memory could be, standing by the window, arms folded like a stereotype of the Northern Housewife. “Yeah, so I’m going to say Uzama,” sure and smug.

(Also, of course, from office colleagues and my dad the following weekend, “There’s a group of Asians [sic] celebrating outside Preston Sorting Office, they’ve all been sent home”)

The consequences of the attacks still crash upon the shore today. History recalls the (false) claims of WMDs in Iraq, the (false) claims of Cyprus being in the firing line of weapons “with only 45 minutes warning”. The hanging of Saddam, smuggled onto YouTube via mobile phone, a very modern, Western, way to die.

We have our DNA on databases, our movements watched by CCTV, our own versions of PATRIOT Acts banning the reading of certain library books. Freedom tainted by necessity, in this “strange new world”. I wish freedom tasted better. I wish faith in our leaders was stronger.

(“This is how it starts, Armageddon,” said my mum, at the time, watching the attacks on BBC News, endless loops, like a gruesome highlights package. ITN News, I recall, set the attacks to music. Enya. Got a slap around the wrists by the ITC or OFCOM.)

My mother had a point, I guess. No, not entirely. But how the “war on terror” will end nobody has decided. Withdrawal from Iraq leaves behind an altered version of the country but not one with flawless democracy or absolute peace. Any original aims seem somehow lost, distorted, if not entirely forgotten.

Afghanistan is a slow motion slaughter of innocents, its original aim (insofar as Bush had one) removed from the collective memories of man completely. History has been here before, Afghanistan does not suffer invasions lightly. The Presidential election is as tasteless a show as it is blunt an instrument.

(“The world will never be the same again,” said the man on the radio, during the attack. With no internet at all or television, the office in which I worked at the time had to listen to the unfolding event on the radio. The overall effect of which was very unsettling, as though the commentary was nothing more than a play, the voiceover an over-wrought script. When I first heard the claims of “world changing events”, I suppressed a giggle.)

Recent programmes on British television re-ran the news coverage and camcorder footage. Some scenes were too graphic to watch, which I found a sobering personal reaction. Suddenly the stunned faces, the voiceless gasps, the dust-covered streets empty of people but full of stories, filled my mind with the absolute reality of what remains an unbelievable day.

But today, what to think? Congratulate the “war on terror”? Feel sorry but stoic? How would timetravel work, knowing what we all do now, about the failure to stop terrorism from killing innocent people. “How would a timetraveller help” is not the question to ask; maybe “when” or “who” would be more accurate.

Today, eight years on from the attacks, history continues to be written. Lessons have not been learned at all.