Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The Norway Narrative

As you almost certainly know, last Friday a massive explosion rocked Oslo, Norway. Shortly thereafter, a gunman opened fire at a camp run by the Labour Party on a nearby island. In all, 76 people were killed and many more injured. Many of the victims were children.

For a brief time on Friday, it was reported that a previously unknown radical Islamist group had taken responsibility for the attacks. The stories in the mainstream media generally represented two different views of this (we now know incorrect) fact.

View 1 was that this showed how dangerous Muslims in Europe are. View 2 was that this was a case of a small minority of Muslims twisting the religion to suit their own purposes and beliefs, and should not be viewed as typical of all Muslims or the religion itself.

Soon it came out that, in fact, the perpetrator in these attacks was a Norwegian citizen upset over immigration and multiculturalism. Two views quickly emerged about this as well. View 1 holds that this is the inevitable result of dangerous rhetoric on the part of conservatives. View 2 holds that this man is clearly mentally ill, and his actions should not be held against an entire political ideology.

There are certainly parallels between these two sets of views. Either the person responsible is representative of their group or they are the exception but not the rule. But there is one notable difference -- in the first scenario, neither view considers mental illness to be a factor.

What is going on here, in both scenarios, is people's attempt to distance themselves from those responsible. They are not like us. They are other. They are different. That means that we are not at risk of becoming like them, and we are less vulnerable to them because their difference may be easy to detect. In the first scenario, the difference in question is one of religion. American mainstream media is largely a Judeo-Christian business. From that perspective, Muslims, whether a handful of radicals or an entire religion, are not "us."

Once it was clear that the perpetrator was European, however, we regrouped. For those on the political left, it was easy to point to him as being on the political right. For those on the right, however, "othering" him was more difficult. He must be mentally ill.

I actually think that this perpetrator probably is mentally ill. Whether that is the whole story or political ideology also plays a part is open for debate. What is interesting to me, though, is that we tend not to consider that suicide bombers from Al-Qaeda, or Osama Bin Laden, or anyone in that general category may be mentally ill. Some of that is racism. Some of it is the ease of separating ourselves from them if we are not Muslim ourselves.

But if you consider it, the narrative of the Oslo massacre probably should be that these attacks were carried out by a deranged person or persons. What religion or ethnic group they are from is not, from that perspective, all that important.


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Naomi Zikmund-Fisher
is a clinical social worker, former school Principal and a Crisis Consultant for schools and community organizations. You can learn more about her at
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