A Sense of Community in Times of Terrorism

“I am now even more convinced than I was five years ago that a sense of community has to be part of the solution to counter terrorism”. Photo: Jørgen Carling, PRIO

In contrast to the impression one may derive from “the debate about the debate” in Norway, “we” – the overwhelming majority – can agree on many points, including the fact that we stand united in the struggle against extremism. We succeeded in doing so in the “rose marches” five years ago, and we can continue to do so now that the roses commemorating 22 July, 2011 have long since withered.

In the wake of the terrorist attacks of 22 July, I wrote about “fragmentation in times of terrorism” [in Norwegian]. My message was that stigmatization and enemy images create and reinforce fragmentation. Like many others in Norway at that time, I called for people to stand united, and to remain united after the roses had withered.

The roses of 22 July have withered. Since then we have unfortunately seen several – albeit smaller – seas of flowers in the streets of Oslo: outside the embassies of France, Belgium and the United States. These tributes have symbolized grief and solidarity with those affected. These roses have also withered. Sadly it will not be long, however, before more flowers take their place.

Terrorist attacks, regardless of where they take place, and regardless of who is behind them, put our sense of community to the test. At the same time, our awareness of this sense of community is heightened. Terrorism forces us to look at ourselves as we encounter a person who is willing to resort to violence and extreme actions. We ask ourselves who “we” are, who we are not, and – perhaps most importantly of all – who we want to be. And 22 July was no exception.

Our response as a society became a symbol of solidarity and community. By standing united we wanted to show the perpetrator that we were many. We wanted to commemorate the dead, and show our solidarity with their families, with the surviving victims of the attacks, and with their families. We wanted to show that the perpetrator had not succeeded in achieving what he set out to do. He had failed to deprive us of our freedom, our democracy and our sense of solidarity.

Since then I have been researching society’s reactions to the attacks of 22 July. The fact that the Norwegian daily newspapers Aftenposten, Dagbladet and Dagsavisen published a total of 356 op-eds about the attacks over the three years that followed provides something of an indicator of the interest in the topic in public debate. Most of these op-eds were written within the first year of the attacks, a period that included the court proceedings against the perpetrator and the publishing of the so-called Gjørv Report, with its harsh critique of the police and security measures in place prior to 22 July.

Things have quietened down since then.

Although we hear and talk less about 22 July, this is still a day that will not be forgotten. That has become clear to me in the 61 interviews I have conducted. Some of the interviewees, who included politicians and others involved in public debate, were closely involved in the aftermath of 22 July.

Most of them, however, are ordinary people who did not have to deal with the aftermath of the attacks in their everyday lives. In their reflections on the societal response to 22 July, they have thought aloud, discussed and asked questions.

For me, one of the most striking features of the interviews has been the diversity of opinions in the Norwegian community. In this community, people who see themselves as part of the same “we”, can have very different opinions – not least about Norway post 22 July.

One issue raised by many interviewees was how we would have reacted as a society if the perpetrator had been an Islamist extremist. Several interviewees, from both immigrant and non-immigrant backgrounds, said that they had been relieved when this had turned out not to be the case. Some were afraid that such a scenario would have caused cracks to appear in the Norwegian community. Others said that a sense of community was something “inherent in being Norwegian”, and hoped and believed that a strong sense of solidarity would have prevailed.

But did this sense of solidarity and the strong sense of community mean that we did not take seriously the issue of outsiderness? Studies have shown that not everyone wanted to participate in, or felt themselves welcome in, the major public commemorations that took place in the immediate aftermath of 22 July. Perhaps this is a topic for reflection. Or perhaps it is completely natural. As one interviewee pointed out: “With all types of communities, there is always a danger that someone will be excluded. But in a democracy it is also not the aim that all public events should include everyone. That would be a totalitarian society.”

A sense of community is more easily inclusive of things that are close at hand, either physically or emotionally. When an attack happens in Belgium or France, we have extra news broadcasts all day and night in Norway. When an attack happens in Iraq or Indonesia, there is a short news item on the daily news round-up. This is about closeness and distance. But did the closeness of the gruesome events of 22 July cause us as a society to move on too quickly? Some of the interviewees questioned whether we had sought to avoid important debates about the perpetrator’s ideas as part of wider societal trends in our eagerness not to give him extended attention.

Has public debate become more open or more closed? While some people thought that there are some debates that we have not dared to engage in, others thought that public debate in Norway has become more open and nuanced. And then there are those who simply wanted us to move on: “Aren’t we done with 22 July by now?”.

The topic of immigration is also the subject of many diverse opinions. There are those who are worried about the changes caused by immigration: for Norway’s economy; for Norwegian genes; for Norway’s Christian cultural heritage. But this does not necessarily mean that all people with these concerns are against immigration. Others see immigration as enriching, but this does not mean that they don’t see the challenges. In contrast, most interviewees identified both opportunities and challenges in connection with immigration.

As opposed to the impression one may get from “the debate about the debate”, most people do not see the world in black and white. And there is room for disagreements and different perspectives in the wider Norwegian community.

Accordingly I am now even more convinced than I was five years ago that a sense of community has to be part of the solution to counter terrorism. We need a strong community where the overwhelming majority stand united against hatred and a dogmatic, exclusionary worldview. We cannot afford the alternative: a situation where extremism fuels extremism, contributing to increase support for each end of the spectrum.

  • This text was first published in Norwegian in Dagsavisen: Fellesskap i terrorens tid‘.
  • Translation from Norwegian: Fidotext
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