If you were to stop someone on the street and ask them for a description of a terrorist, what do you think they would say?
Most people might give you a description of an olive-skinned man with some facial hair, probably in his early to mid-20s and having some type of accent. In short, they might give you a description of any one of the 19 hijackers from the 9/11 attacks of nearly 10 years ago.
Now if you were to ask someone where an act of terror might occur, they could easily say New York, London, Jerusalem, Beirut, or Washington, D.C. None of those cities would be a great stretch of the imagination. Each has had horrifically memorable acts occur there.
As creatures and consumers of the mass media, our default position is often aligned with what we see and hear there, reinforced by examples of what we have absorbed before.
If you were to ask any terrorism or intelligence analyst where Norway ranked among countries susceptible to acts of terror, they would probably have said it was fairly low.
For most Americans, Norway is a country better known for its midnight sun, skiing, and winter sports than probably anything else. I’m sure that, for a number of people, locating it on a map of the world might also prove to be a challenge, but when an act of tremendous violence occurs, wherever it is on the planet, our geographic crosshairs align to that exact spot to see what happened. When it’s in a place that is not known as particularly violent, it brings to mind the question, “Is any place safe?”
Oslo is known as a center of civility, not a home of carnage. Yet it will undoubtedly find itself compared to another city, not known as being particularly violent, that became an epicenter for death and destruction by person(s) who thought their political agenda better served by explosives and bullets.
The Murrah Building bombing in Oklahoma City was an American wake-up call that no town in the United States was immune from someone doing the unimaginable to send a message.
Tragically, Oslo now bears a similar distinction.
In an almost eerie repeat of the immediate post Oklahoma City bombing aftermath, local and world attention turned to thoughts of Muslim extremists as the parties responsible for the deaths of nearly 100 people. In this case, the Internet initially lit up with various Muslim extremist groups claiming responsibility for the bombing of the government’s offices and youth camp shooting as revenge for the country’s support of a Danish cartoonist who made a political cartoon of the prophet Mohammed.
Flashback to April 19, 1995, and with a smoldering hole gaping from the Alfred P. Murrah Federal building, a shocked nation’s attention initially focused on potential Muslim extremists who executed the murder of 186 people, including 19 children. At one point, a young man from Jordan who had been taking classes in the Oklahoma City area was brought back to the United States for questioning after he had flown back to his home country the day of the attack. He was subsequently cleared of any involvement in the bombing.
In both cases our default conclusion, rightly or wrongly, went to the description of the terrorist we thought we knew best, and not the one who essentially was the non-descript person living among us who committed the actual acts. At this time, it’s hard to know how far the comparisons between executed Oklahoma City bomber Tim McVeigh and Oslo rampage suspect Anders Behring Breivik might go, but it’s worth a good hard look.
McVeigh’s murderous acts were driven by his hatred of a government that he thought needed to be brought down for its actions at Ruby Ridge and elsewhere. Based upon initial media reports, Behring Breivik’s drivers appear to be more religious and anti-immigrant-based in nature, but the subsequent investigation and prosecution may unveil some other inspirations that caused him to do what he has been accused of doing.
Regardless of those inspirations, the face and location of terrorism has changed on us again. It is easy for any one of us to fall into the all-too-easy trap of assuming we know the culprits of such heinous acts and go about rounding up the “usual suspects.” Fortunately law enforcement processes rather than preconceived notions and discriminators end up being the final metric.
There are arguments that go on daily as to racial and ethnic profiling of travelers who fit the mold of what we think a terrorist is and where and how that individual might strike. Oklahoma City and Oslo are stark reminders that the molds and models we are used to do not always apply.
Terrorism is a dynamic threat that takes various shapes and forms, and is used by individuals as well as groups to suit whatever goal and purpose they have in mind. Women as well as children of various ages, colors, religions, and nationalities, like men, are perfectly willing to carry out such an act, as much as any young, male Muslim extremist, disenchanted and angry at the West, is to board a plane with a box cutter and change world history.
Our challenge as a civilized society is to allow facts, rather than prejudices, to take precedent. The forthcoming prosecution of the Oslo massacres may reveal the fears that some people have of a changing, multicultural society from one that was once much more uniform.
As history records, the investigation that brought McVeigh and his co-conspirator Terry Nichols to justice revealed an undercurrent of American citizens that saw their government as a greater threat to their individual liberties than being one of its greatest protectors.
Whatever their respective reasons, their means can in no way be justified as appropriate, nor can our assumptions about who carries out such acts. We fall into default decision making all too easily in a world increasingly governed by immediate images of horror as well as social media posts and tweets from Twitter. Facts matter. They make healing possible for everyone involved, including the victims’ families as well as the ill-accused.
Facts also help us deal with the reality that terror can strike from anywhere perpetrated by anyone. When we realize that, we can all be better prepared before it happens, and certainly in dealing with its aftermath.