Moral Readiness – Do We Speak too Little About it?

Readiness is about more than simply the emergency services and the other key homeland-security institutions. It is about all of us and our shared values, what Jens Stoltenberg in the days after 22 July 2011 spoke of as the need for more democracy, openness and humanity. Photo: Sjur Stølen

Five years have passed since the shocking events of 22 July 2011. We still notice how these events have taken hold of us. We notice it all the more when similar terrorist attacks take place elsewhere in the world: in Istanbul, Dallas or Nice. We shed tears in sympathy with the victims. And of course we fear for our own safety.

One of the most important debates that follows in the wake of terrorism is the debate about readiness and security. The newspaper Dagbladet deserves credit for its active coverage of Norway’s state of readiness. What have we learnt? What has been done? What has not been done? Are we capable of protecting our own population?

These questions are both important and timely, and much of the debate has been of high quality. But readiness is not only about the emergency services and other key homeland-security institutions. It is not only about allocating and coordinating responsibilities. Readiness is also about moral values. Since moral values featured so heavily in much of the conversation in the days immediately after the shocking events of 2011, it may be worth reminding ourselves about them now.

When I use the word values here, I mean qualities that mean a great deal to us – that help determine how we think and act. Values are complex and may evolve. In a diverse society such as Norway, there will be many different values at any given time. The goal is not for everyone to agree or for everyone to share the same values. But there is little doubt that we do need strong values when tragedy strikes and we have to pick ourselves up and continue with our lives.

This relates to readiness in at least two ways. First, this concerns the values held by the security and emergency services themselves and by their employees. They must act decisively and effectively. At the same time, they must respect people’s right to privacy, and they must not provoke more fear than is necessary. They must, not least, cooperate. Such cooperation is dependent on mutual respect and a willingness to learn from each other. When employing new technologies, they must be open to innovative solutions and be willing enthusiastically to share their insights and “make each other good”, to use the language of sports. All these things are difficult to legislate or put down in writing. They all concern cultural and moral values, something the Gjørv Commission, which evaluated the official Norwegian response to the 22 July terror, was deeply concerned about. Are we aware enough of these values? Do we speak enough about them?

These cultural and moral values should, in my opinion, be strengthened by the fact that we know how much is at stake. Precisely the importance of the goal – the goal of a safer society that is also humane, and that is resilient against extremism and hate – should create a shared desire to do the job well, and to learn honestly and openly from past mistakes.

Readiness is, however, about much more than simply the emergency services and the other key homeland-security institutions. It is about all of us and our shared values, what Jens Stoltenberg in the days after 22 July 2011 spoke of as the need for more democracy, openness and humanity.

When tragedy strikes, we are put to the test. Active efforts to counter destructive acts of terror; respect for intelligence and other police work; and even armed defence of our society when necessary; all of these are key aspects of our response. But do we also manage, each and every one of us in our everyday lives, to remain calm and preserve the most important values that our society is founded on – such as the three values identified by Jens Stoltenberg: democracy, openness and humanity?

Terrorists such as Anders Behring Breivik or organizations such as Islamic State and the mass murderer Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel in Nice all want to show the world that in reality we are at war. They see democracy, openness, diversity and other people’s religious and moral views as damaging and dangerous. They want to create fear and hatred among us. As a result we need to ask ourselves: should we give them what they want?

There are pretty much no other Norwegians who will do or support the things Breivik did, even among those who share some of his views. Pretty much no other Muslims will ever kill like Lahouaiej-Bouhlel, even those who might be attracted by extreme religious views. While we must be in a state of physical readiness to deal with terrorism, we must also be in a state of moral readiness that will remind us of this fact. The worst nightmare of all terrorists and extremists – whether they are on the far right or the far left, whether they are religious or secular – is a society that keeps intact its moral values and respect between its members, and refuses to submit to fear and hate.

Some people think of a peaceful and tolerant society as a naive dream that makes us weak. They call for war, for distrust and for more borders. Even though firm responses are sometimes necessary, this kind of response is every terrorist’s dream. Our response must be that we are building a form of readiness that is decisive, clear and strong, that sets clear boundaries and establishes physical protection, but that at the same time is marked by a strong and active belief in pluralistic democracy, the kind of society that has been the most stable and successful in history. This kind of society allows for differences and individual rights. The really effective response to dictators such as Adolf Hitler, Josef Stalin or Mao Zedong – who threatened and killed countless more people than today’s terrorists will manage – was never to close ourselves off in a state of hatred and distrust, even though we were in a state of high readiness. Similarly, our response to Breivik or to Lahouaiej-Bouhlel must not be to cultivate fear and hatred towards our fellow human beings.

In other words, we do not only need physical readiness. We need moral readiness.


  • This text was published in Norwegian in the daily newspaper Dagbladet, 22 July 2016
  • Translation from Norwegian: Fidotext
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