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Jane Ahlin, Published July 31 2011

Norwegian leader’s words ring with the clarity of FDR

Since the world learned that a bombing outside the Norwegian prime minister’s offices plus a shooting at a youth camp killing a total of 76 people were the work of a 32-year-old right-wing Christian Norwegian by the name of Anders Behring Breivik, much of the coverage has referred to the event as Norway’s “loss of innocence.”

The idea seems to be that Norway had not experienced terrorism before and hadn’t particularly worried about it – as if it couldn’t happen to them. With the bombing and shooting, their bubble of insularity was burst.

Immediately, news folks began comparing Breivik’s terrorist acts to those of Timothy McVeigh in the Oklahoma City bombing, April 19, 1995. No question, both men were homegrown terrorists. However, as an analogy for loss of innocence, the comparison doesn’t entirely hold up.

The United States may not have expected a bombing in the middle of the country perpetrated by one of our own, but we knew we were a target for terrorism. The Pan Am flight brought down over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988 and the 1993 bombing in the garage of the World Trade Center left no doubt on that score.

Later, the magnitude of the 9/11 attack of 2001 stunned us, but we knew it could happen. The truth is, a good share of the problem our democracy faces today is knowing it could happen again.

For our country, innocence was lost when President Kennedy was assassinated in 1963 because, at the time, we thought assassination was a banana republic thing, something that could not happen to us. At the very least, we associated it historically – tragic events of earlier times when we still were evolving into the great nation we’d become. In 1963, we were too civilized and too sophisticated in the ways we protected our leaders. We did not see ourselves as vulnerable.

Certainly, there was no push to curtail civil liberties in the wake of the Kennedy assassination. In fact, as raucous as the ’60s were, it was a decade when the individual rights of Americans were strengthened in law.

Note that I don’t mean to paint the early 1960s as “the good old days.” (They weren’t.) However, watching Norway’s official reaction to their nation’s tragedy reminds us how long it has been since our own government affirmed the importance – the necessity – of individual rights and public transparency for the health of our democracy.

Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg said both to his own people and to the world, “The Norwegian response to violence is more democracy, more openness and greater political participation.”

His words ring with the clarity of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s words in the face of the Great Depression: All we have to fear is fear itself.

Indeed, Stoltenberg underscored his point by acknowledging “that there is going to be one Norway before and one Norway after July 22,” then adding, “But I hope and also believe that the Norway we will see after will be more open, a more tolerant society than what we had before.”

Some of the reaction of American right-wing commentators to the Norwegian tragedy has been funny in a dark way, as if calling a homegrown terrorist (self-identified as a Christian crusader of a new Knights Templar) a “Christian” is a left-wing plot to demean American Christianity.

The always-out-there Glenn Beck likened the politically affiliated youth camp where over five dozen children were murdered to Nazi youth camps and that good old minister/

columnist Cal Thomas mused that more liberal gun laws in Norway might have resulted in somebody shooting the shooter before he could kill so many (WWJS, whom would Jesus shoot?).

It’s silliness, nothing more than an attention diverter from a reality we don’t like to face. We’ve grown fuzzy about the importance of civil liberties to healthy democracies by giving in to our fears of terrorism. In the name of safety, we have allowed the government to take basic rights and freedoms we may never get back.

If Norway is attacked again, perhaps it will lose some of its national resolve. But for now, Norway inspires.


Ahlin writes a Sunday column for The Forum. Email janeahlin@yahoo.com