By Matthew Harwood, Tuesday 26 July 2011 21.30 BST
The first images of the destruction in Oslo’s city centre Friday were reminiscent of New York City’s, Madrid’s and London’s encounters with jihadist terrorism. But Oslo also looked eerily like Oklahoma City in 1995. And as the news trickled in that the terrorist attack was the work of Anders Behring Breivik, a Norwegian rightwing extremist, Americans had rapidly to re-evaluate their comfortable post 9/11 belief that only swarthy jihadists engage in terrorist atrocities. The ghost of Osama bin Laden quickly morphed into the visage of Timothy McVeigh.
No religion, ideology, race or ethnicity has a monopoly on political violence. Despite this truism, many Americans and US media outlets continue to conflate Islam with terrorism – a fact many media critics documented during the clumsy breaking coverage of Breivik’s attack. This may seem understandable as we Americans face the anniversary of 11 September 2001 in little more than a month. Homegrown and overseas jihadists certainly present a clear and present danger to the United States, but they are by no means the only threat or, arguably, the most dangerous. Indeed, the US has come face to face with many potential Breiviks before – fortunately, few as bloodily effective as this terrorist.
Since 9/11, there have been at least five incidents where American extremists possessed or sought to obtain chemical, biological or radiological materials, according to the post 9/11 database compiled by the Muslim Public Affairs Council. Of these five, three cases involved white males holding white supremacist and extreme anti-government beliefs. None, however, was jihadists. Incidents such as these show that it isn’t only al-Qaida and its fellow travellers who want to make a spectacle of indiscriminate slaughter. Yet, past incidents like the shooting at the Holocaust museum; the murder of abortion doctor Dr George Tiller; Joseph Stack’s suicide attack on the IRS building in Austin, Texas; and a neo-Nazi’s disrupted attack on a Martin Luther King Day Parade in Spokane, Washington; all highlight the US media’s blind spot to terrorist acts and plots not perpetrated by Muslims. Rarely are they described as what they are: rightwing terrorists.
For those cultural conservatives and Tea Partiers who have taken the time to glance at Breivik’s mammoth manifesto (pdf), it must make for uncomfortable reading. With its early and frequent denunciations of “cultural Marxism”, “Islamisation” and “homosexuality”, it isn’t a stretch to argue that Breivik would have felt comfortable at a Michele Bachmann rally, nodding along with her legions of supporters forever fearful of socialism, sharia law and same-sex marriage.
Which is not to suggest Breivik was inspired by the Tea Party or Michele Bachmann, but what Breivik’s attack – in common with other under-reported incidents in the United States – demonstrates is that when the attacker looks much like you and believes similar things, it becomes nearly impossible to see him for what he is. Nor, when he could pass for “one of us”, are we likely to demonise him with wild generalisations about his race or religion. When the terrorist looks like you, he gets downgraded to “an extremist”, or to the more vanilla description, “disturbed individual”, and is handled efficiently, and correctly, by the criminal justice system.
But this makes it easier to ignore the atrocity as an aberration rather than analysing it as something potentially more significant and menacing. It goes without saying that a society rarely declares a “war on terror” when the terrorists look like them and hold similar cultural and religious beliefs. That’s the inherent danger of chauvinism: it erodes a citizenry’s ability to see a metastasising threat, while manageable threats become existential.
The most pressing lesson Americans should take away from Breivik’s terrorist attack is that liberal democratic society has many enemies, some of whom have no compunction about exploiting freedom and tolerance to create corpses. These enemies can take on many faces – jihadism, Christian nationalism, white supremacism – but their underlying bone structures remain the same. Americans who cannot see that jihadists and Christian white supremacists suffer from the same affliction only leave their backs exposed to a more intimate, and thus more dangerous, threat. Terrorists come in all shapes and sizes: sometimes, they even look, act and believe as we do.
Photograph of OKC firefighter Chris Fields carrying Baylee Almon, April 19, 1995, Porter/Keystone USA/Rex Features.