Brendan O’Neill looks at the media reaction to the Oslo and Utoya terror attacks:
When it was reported on Friday that there had been an explosion and an horrific mass shooting in Norway, many observers assumed that al-Qaeda or some other radical Islamist group had struck at the heart of peaceful Scandinavia. ‘Norway’s 9/11’, said the front page of the Sun on Saturday, with the subheading: ‘“Al-Qaeda” massacre.’ Yet when it was revealed that the alleged bomber and shooter is a Norway-born, blonde-haired, farm-owning Aryan, observers quickly bought into the idea that we were faced with something very different from an al-Qaeda attack. This wasn’t ‘Norway’s 9/11’ after all, but something more akin to Columbine-on-steroids, a right-wing madman letting off steam in a most barbaric fashion. As one Norwegian police official put it: this was ‘probably more Norway’s Oklahoma than its World Trade Centre’.
Yet this simplistic categorisation of contemporary terror assaults — where violent outbursts get slotted into files marked ‘Radical Islamist Fury’ or ‘Right-Wing Anger’ — makes too fine a distinction between acts that are actually very similar. Just because something like 7/7 in London was executed by men with dark hair and brown skin who claimed to be fighting on behalf of the Muslim ummah, while the bombing of Oslo and massacre on Utoya were carried out by a white guy who claimed to be protecting European Christian culture, that doesn’t mean these are diametrically different actions. What they have in common is far more important than what separates them. And, stripped of their pseudo-political garb, what unites today’s various terror tantrums, what makes these kind of people possible in the first place, is a very powerful culture of estrangement in modern society.
In much of the media, particularly amongst the respectable broadsheet press, there was a palpable sense of relief when it was revealed that the alleged killer is white with far-right tendencies. This means he is the kind of person we can unambiguously hate. Where Islamist terror attacks, from 9/11 to 7/7, induce in some liberal observers torn and tortured feelings, where they want to condemn the violence but also feel the need to explain it as a natural reaction to evil Western foreign policy, Anders Behring Breivik is someone they can despise in an uncomplicated way. This means that while the attacks may not be ‘Norway’s 9/11’, they could well be the cultural elite’s 9/11 — in the sense that this is an act which the influential liberal classes may seek to politicise in an opportunistic fashion, to make moral mileage out of, in the same way that the right did after 11 September 2001.