In response to the attacks in Norway, everyone immediately began pointing fingers. President Obama and the establishment instantly blamed Islamists, at least implicitly. Now that the alleged killer is profiled as a radical anti-Islamist, the center left is blaming right-wing “extremism” and agitating for an institutional response to such dangerous lines of thinking.
Beyond the ideological element of this atrocity, there is the question of the policy response. American hawks, including the administration, see this as a rationale to continue the war on terror. The violence of al-Qaeda is supposedly uniquely inspiring to terrorists of all stripes, even ones ideologically opposed to the Muslim group.
Yet if there’s one lesson from this, it’s that the entire strategic basis of the war on terrorism is faulty. Forcible democratization of the Muslim world to deter terrorist attacks appears to be an even more circuitous remedy when the most violent attack to rock Europe in modern times came not from a Muslim extremist but one who shares the neoconservatives’ fears of a Muslim takeover of the West.
If acts of horrendous mass violence can come from fundamentalist Muslims as well as those motivated by fear of them, we must finally confront the fact that pure safety from terrorism is impossible. The wonder with which onlookers witnessed the bloodshed in such a supposedly tranquil Scandinavian nation as Norway is somewhat unfounded when we consider Norway’s involvement in America’s war with Libya. But there is something to the description of Norway as being relatively peaceful internally, especially as it concerns the mass shootings often pinned on U.S. gun culture. This incident reminds us, however, that nothing can be done to prevent a psycho from taking up arms and unleashing the unthinkable upon dozens of innocent people. An open society can’t absolutely prevent it, and more restrictive societies tend to get very little security in exchange for the lost freedom.
The left often calls for gun control, and the right cites these incidents as a reason for a more armed populace. I agree more with the latter, but even that is no guarantee against determined madmen. And certainly, the whole plethora of government anti-terror policies are a bust: surveillance of the citizenry, sweeping up zillions of gigabytes of data, gratuitously invasive airport security measures, detention without due process of material witnesses as well as enemy combatants captured far away from the homeland, renditioning and torture, to say nothing of preventive wars and sustained occupations that kill tens or hundreds of thousands of civilians. None of this can really stop a dedicated nut from destroying the lives of large numbers of people. All that these policies tend to do is incite more hatred, exacerbate cultural tensions and animosities, and make people from both “sides” of the official war willing to engage in violence against the enemy.
Early in the aftermath of 9/11, the Bush administration adopted the ridiculous goal of “rid[ding] the world of evil.” Bush is quoted as saying that he was determined to “export death and violence to the four corners of the earth in defense of our great nation.”
Even the much more specific aspiration of waging a war on terrorism — a narrow subset of evil — was always completely fanciful. Terrorism is a tactic, a form of asymmetrical warfare not all that morally different from many of the United States’ bombing campaigns or its sanctions policy against Iraq in the 1990s — the deliberate targeting of a civilian population to bring about political changes at the top.
In any event, terrorism is an option within grasp for any able-bodied person. It is only as rare as it is because only the smallest minority of people would ever have an interest in committing it. The logic of the war on terrorism suffers fundamentally for at least two reasons. First, those it supposedly seeks to pacify are in fact motivated most by the very war policies that typify the strategy. As Robert Pape has shown, the primary impetus behind suicide bombings is resistance to foreign occupation, not religious extremism. As early as October 2003, even Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld admitted in a memo that he could not tell if the U.S. approach was working:
Today, we lack metrics to know if we are winning or losing the global war on terror. Are we capturing, killing or deterring and dissuading more terrorists every day than the madrassas and the radical clerics are recruiting, training and deploying against us?
Second, those with an ideological bent completely different from those principally targeted by the war on terrorism are equally capable of wreaking havoc on a horrifying scale, as Breivik’s alleged acts demonstrate. And adjusting the war on terrorism to accommodate right-wing, nationalist, anti-Muslim extremists as well as their Islamist mirror images is too preposterous and impossible an effort to take seriously.
In 2005, six whole years ago, the Bush administration canceled the annual publication of the “Patterns of Global Terrorism” report. It would have shown that major terrorist attacks rose from 175 worldwide in 2003 to 625 in 2004. Yet even in the war on terrorism’s failures there is a silver lining: Despite the government’s doing everything to incite it, terrorism is still not nearly the threat that people seem to think. In the United States, recent studies show you are far more likely to die in a drowning, a fire, or a car accident. You are about 12,000 times as likely to die from cancer and eight times as likely to die from electrocution.
As for airplanes, where so much emphasis has been put — despite the fact, as shown in Norway, that it is at least as easy for someone to murder many people anywhere they gather in public as it is on an airplane — we’ve been taking off our shoes and surrendering our liquids in a fit of disproportionate hysteria at best. Airplane accidents are much likelier than airplane hijackings, the last three attempts of which all ended when passengers and crew subdued the would-be assailant. Your chance of dying in a terrorist attack on an airplane is about one in 25 million. You are 50 times as likely to be struck by lightning.
Perhaps the relatively minor threat of mass shootings and bombings helps explain why the king of Norway was so collected and rational in his public statement on Saturday:
I remain convinced that the belief in freedom is stronger than fear. I remain convinced in the belief of an open Norwegian democracy and society. I remain convinced in the belief in our ability to live freely and safely in our own country.
If only Bush and Obama had responded to such incidents not with appeals to the necessity of the war on terrorism and their broad executive power, but with declarations that freedom must not be compromised in an attempt to crusade against extremism, terrorism, or evil. The irony of the trillions spent, the millions of lives ruined, and the priceless civil liberties turned upside down in the global war on terror that has dominated U.S. policy for the last decade is not just that the policies undertaken have mostly been counterproductive; it is that nothing at all can stop a determined terrorist with political grievances, whatever they might be, from committing mayhem on a mass scale. The other side of the irony is that the danger still does not rise nearly to a level that might excuse the panic.