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As an American-Swedish dual citizen, I was on vacation in Sweden, having just returned from a trip over to Finland, when the news of the bombing and massacre in neighboring Norway broke. It affected me as deeply as if it'd happened in Sweden itself, and I think that's a sentiment shared by most Swedes. I cried. My voice still chokes up talking about it. In the immediate aftermath, Sweden's BBC-equivalent SVT quickly started broadcasting a live feed of Norway's NRK, without translation or subtitles. It is perhaps the only country close enough to Sweden, culturally and linguistically, for that to be possible. They are the 'brotherly people', in the words of the motto of Oscar II, our last shared monarch.

Yesterday, in an under-reported event, five nations stood together in silence to honor the dead. At noon yesterday, as Norway gathered to mourn, they were not alone. Sweden held a minute of silence, as did Denmark, Finland and Iceland. (At 1 PM in Finland and 10 AM in Iceland to correspond to Norwegian noon) Across the nations, workers paused, construction workers put down their tools, IKEA staff gathered in groups. Twitter went silent, the stock markets in the capitals halted trading for a minute. Subway trains stopped. For a minute, The North stood silent as one in contemplation. (To use the literal translation of the term the Nordic countries use to refer to themselves) The whole world shares Norway's pain.

I haven't read Kos much since the attacks; in part because I have no problems reading Norwegian and getting news from primary sources, but also because I simply haven't been able to bear more detail than necessary. So what I'm about to say may have been said already, but I can't stay silent. I'd like to share some thoughts on the matter, and perhaps some insights on how it relates to the USA, given that I have more experience than most with both cultures.

There is a disease plaguing western society - and it's not immigration. It's the cancer of intolerance and fanaticism, manifesting itself as right-wing populism. It's the imagined threat of Europe and the United States, being under attack by Muslims. Something I've previously written about in diaries here.

When the details of the massacre at Utøya started to emerge, my suspicions on the culprit shifted to right-wing extremists (having previously been undecided). Since Islamist terrorists would have little reason to target the Norwegian Labor party specifically. (Similarly, on 9/11 I'd guessed it was Al-Qaeda since American right-wing extremists would have little reason to target the WTC rather than the Federal government)

It did not come as a surprise to me that the perpetrator (who I will not name, as he wanted that) was a fan the Nordic right-wing populist anti-immigration parties, as well as the Tea Party. While there are superficial differences (e.g. on the role of government), the similarities run far deeper: As populists, they lack a coherent ideology. They're strongly against the prevailing order, but god-knows what they're in favor of. There are strong undercurrents of racism and xenophobia in all of them, and they all attract extremists, although not every member is necessarily an extremist themselves.

As I wrote in the diary linked above, Tea Party leader Michelle Bachmann not only shares the world-view of the Norwegian terrorist, that Europe is being taken over by radical Muslims - she even takes it a step further, regarding it as a fait accompli in the case of France, "which had a beautiful culture" (emphasis mine).

It's a mirror image of the warped world view of radicalized Muslims, who view the West as a single bloc, intent on forcing their will upon them. As fundamentalist preachers like al-Awlaki are radicalizing Muslim youth across the world against the West, our American right-wing extremists are radicalizing people to their equally distorted mirror-world. They both seek a "war of civilizations" in which the forces of democracy, openness, freedom and tolerance will be the first casualty.

It is a fight against an imaginary enemy. The vast, vast majority of Muslims in Europe and America are not seeking to 'take over', or to impose their values on others, to destroy freedom of speech, or institute Sharia Law. Nor is the West at 'war with Islam', as bin Laden insisted - and even President Bush was above claiming that we were.

This fight against an imagined enemy is the root of all extremism, of mob-mentality and ultimately, the atrocities that extremism incurs. An imaginary enemy cannot be defeated, an imaginary enemy can have any amount of power and pose any amount of danger. Once you have divorced yourself from reality you cannot be reasoned with. It starts a self-reinforcing cycle of hatred, where all ills are ultimately traced back to the imaginary enemy. In Sweden, an politician with the extremist party Sverigedemokraterna ("Sweden democrats", although the other parties do not consider them to be democratic) quickly blamed the terror attacks in Norway on "multiculturalism", stating that "If Norway was still Norwegian, this would not have happened". Something which reminds me strongly of a Lincoln quote that Paul Krugman recently cited on his blog:

A highwayman holds a pistol to my ear, and mutters through his teeth, “Stand and deliver, or I shall kill you, and then you will be a murderer!”

Glenn Beck, with his "Nazi Tourettes" (as Lewis Black aptly put it), blamed the victims, comparing the Labor party youth organization to the Hitlerjugend. In a way, that's actually a bit understandable. From the American perspective, I know how the idea of political youth organizations can appear circumspect. But they are not. These are parties (and all parties in Norway have youth organizations) which are firmly committed to democratic ideals. (with the exception of the right-wing populist ones) Membership in any youth organizations is not compulsory. They do not wear uniforms. There is no 'indoctrination' going on. It is merely regarded as a way to get young people involved in the political process. And of course, the US has no shortage of 'value-based' youth organizations itself, including ones that are considerably less tolerant than the Scandinavian ones. It's worth noting the Boy Scouts of America still requires members to profess a faith (something most scouting organizations in the Nordic countries do not), and that they still ban homosexuals. Meanwhile, the youth organization of the Christian Democratic party in Sweden (as anti-gay as you can get here) has had an openly gay chairman!

Beck is projecting. The Norwegians - who suffered a Nazi government themselves during the war - know more about Fascism than he's ever done. In the real world, it was the Nazis who were right-wing populists. They too did not have a coherent ideology. They too, fought an imaginary enemy which was the root of all evil, which "threatened" their society and culture. They were a party that claimed to represent "the people", yet were backed financially by some of the country's richest industrialists, like Thyssen and Krupp, who cynically saw them as a tool to stop workers' unions and actual socialists. Yet, in the alternate world of Beck and the Tea Party, it is the superficial 'socialist' aspect which is the root of all Nazi evil - rather than the deep similarities they share in just about every other respect.

The Norwegian terrorist's statement, that his massacre was "gruesome but necessary" echoes the justifications the Nazis made for the Holocaust. At Nuremberg, and no doubt, to themselves. It echoes what Al Qaeda thought of the 9/11 attacks. It was an act of "self defense" against an "enemy" which only existed in their minds. The worst atrocities in human history have always been justified thusly.

What we can learn from Norway
It's a sad realization, but we Americans are not any less prone to this kind of paranoid world view. We're more prone to it. It's something Richard Hofstader called "The Paranoid Style in American Politics", 50 years ago. It's what provoked Sinclair Lewis to write the novel It Can't Happen Here, in the 30's. (Which made the case that American fascism would not only not look like the German version, but likely portray itself as a defense against it) From Red Scares to McCarthyism to the "War on Drugs", we've got a long history of paranoia, conspiracy theories and overreacting to threats real and imagined. During the Cold War, the US had fewer actual communists than almost any other Western nation (many of which had communist parties in their parliaments), yet we were more scared of them, not less. (Perhaps because we had fewer of them)

By comparison, Nordic people are a lot more level-headed, and in fact, more solidly based in reality, I would say. (Not that they're somehow inherently more rational, but there is a culture that much more strongly disdainful of irrational and sensationalist rhetoric) But reading mainstream US media, you would think that they are merely naive. The cultural bias in the reporting was pretty obvious to me. The narrative of a small, innocent nation, living in a bubble of illusory security, which has now been broken. Apparently expecting Norway to now over-react the way the US did to 9/11.

This narrative is false. To state an opinion of mine, which was mirrored so strongly by Norwegian PM Stoltenberg, I'd almost have thought I got it from him, had I not known I've been of this opinion for a long time: I'd say the Nordic peoples are not naive at all. They are not living in a bubble. In fact, as small nations in a big world, they are not as isolated as the US is. We have our huge size, our geographic isolation as a continent, and the overwhelming influence of our culture to allow us to view the world as we choose.

The Norwegians know, they live in a dangerous world. They merely make the more courageous choice to accept that fact, rather than get all hysterical.

In 1986, Swedish prime minister Olof Palme was assassinated, while walking home through central Stockholm with his wife, after an evening at the movies. It shook the nation. But in 2003, foreign minister Anna Lindh was assassinated in broad daylight, while shopping at a Stockholm department store. From the American media narrative now, that'd be idiotic - didn't they know the risks? The answer is that they did, obviously, know the risks. But chose not to let fear run their society. Security was improved of course, but they did not fire a bunch of people, or pass new laws infringing civil liberties. They were intent to not let this change them.

Last December, Stockholm was hit by a suicide bomber, who injured several people, but failed at killing anyone but himself. It was Muslim who had been radicalized abroad. He left a 'manifesto' urging Muslims to 'rise up' or whatever.

What didn't happen is more interesting here than what did happen. Nobody was fired or forced to resign. There was no political blame-game whatsoever, or criticism from the political opposition. No new laws were passed. ordinary Muslim leaders were not called upon to 'refudiate' the attack. By comparison, it had hardly been a day after the failed "Christmas day bombing" before the Republicans (plus Lieberman) started criticizing Obama, and even calling into question Miranda rights. In the case of the Times Square bomber, suddenly citizenship rights came under fire, from the same parties.

I hope and expect, the Norwegians to respond to this true-to-form and not go off the deep end of paranoia. - As it was paranoia that caused this in the first place. We should all - Americans and Norwegians - try to do the sane thing, the courageous thing, and the more difficult thing, namely to respond with more openness, more democracy and tolerance. To not let our civil rights be decreased. To not let those who would sow fear and mistrust win the day. To be vigilant, but not paranoid. Open, but not naive. I believe the Scandinavians have managed to do so when confronted with similar tragedies in the past, and will manage to do so now, unless they really have changed fundamentally.

We're already seeing positive signs in that direction - Norwegian news today reports that there's a surge of applications for membership in political youth organizations - across all parties. They should be proud.

As Americans, we have much to learn from these examples. We have to work towards fostering a political culture (on all sides) that disparages fear, hyperbole, paranoia and conspiratorial thinking. We have to make it clear that you are not entitled to your own reality. And we should not tolerate fear-mongering in any form, even if it supports our own cause. We need to call out extreme views wherever they are seen. And we need to foster a more responsible media culture, one which is less sensationalist and not afraid of confronting extremism.

Originally posted to BluePlatypus on Tue Jul 26, 2011 at 12:09 PM PDT.

Also republished by July 22nd and Community Spotlight.

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