Yash Tandon takes a deeper look at the mass killings in Norway on 22 July. The event, he writes, 'gives us a moment to comprehend the deeper meaning of human existence'.
The tragic events of 22 July in Utoya Island and in Oslo in Norway came as a shock to all life-celebrating humanity. That these events should happen in a civilised and highly cultured society like Norway comes as a double shock. We share the pain and grief of our Norwegian brothers and sisters. No amount of sorrow will comfort the parents and loved ones of those who died on 22 July.
The immediate reaction of international (mostly western) media was that the attacks must have been the work of Islamic terrorists. This knee-jerk reaction is based palpably on fear and prejudice, but its expression in public media without proper inquiry is reprehensible for two reasons. First, instead of quietening anxiety and fear it feeds these neuroses. Second, it exposes the irresponsibility of the media.
Leaving media irresponsibility aside for now, it is important for us all to take this moment for deeper reflection - a moment not just for the Norwegians and the Europeans but for all those who cherish human life, who value peace, who look for ideals and principles that unite us as humans rather than divide us. Out of tragedy sometimes comes an awakening - but only if we draw proper lessons from it. We must reflect together so that those innocent lives in Utoya Island are not lost in vain. Without darkness you cannot see light just like during the day it is not possible to see the stars. In the dark hours of Norway, some stars cast their divine light on the good that is in all humanity.
Children in the camp that miraculously survived the ordeal put their lives in danger in order to rescue those shot but still alive, or they jumped into the water to save those who tried to swim out of reach of the gunman. People from all walks of life felt a sense of collective pain like one family. In the aftermath of the event, Islamic preachers and believers attended Christian ceremonies and held their own prayers in mosques. The early speculation that the terror attacks must have been acts by the Islamists evaporated like mist. Beyond Norway, expressions of horror and sympathy flowed towards Norway. In Slovakia, people thronged a concert on Bratislava's Main Square to express their solidarity with Norway.
But the tragedy of humans is that we are better at instinctive action than reflective thought. Once the memory of the tragedy fades away, people return to their past prejudices. Once the instinct has played its role, thinking takes a reverse turn and goes back to the old ways. Instinct is an instantaneous reaction; it comes from the guts, from the inner spirit. Reflection is premeditated thought. It brings to surface, once again, selfishness, greed, avarice, revenge. We are back to square one. We are back to ground zero - or worse.
This is what happened after 9/11. The instinctive reaction of all (almost all) humanity was one of shock, a shared grief, a tender feeling for those who lost their innocent lives. But after the instinctive phase was over, thinking took over. The problem was not the thinking per se. The problem was that the thinking was left to the governments, and in particular, in this case, to the US government.
People regularly surrender their right to think to their governments. The top-down approach that many of us decry starts from the bottom majority passing on the responsibility to think to those in state power. So, not surprisingly, the 9/11 tragedy triggered not deeper reflection on the causes that led to the tragedy in the first place, but to vengeance - a state-directed vengeance. Extremist expressions by those who take lives of innocent people, like the killings by Anders Breivik, do not spring from nowhere; they too are part of our societies. They are our own creations. They live in the shadowy fringes of our societies until they come out in the open and detonate life and home.
But the vengeance that followed 9/11 in the form of a bombing raid on Afghanistan was not the act of people who lived in ‘the shadowy fringes of our societies’; they were in state power. They still are. The logic and the evidence of the revenge bombing on Afghanistan are obvious for all who care to see. After over a decade of bombing, and the killing of tens of thousands of innocent lives (from both sides), we are now back to square one; we are back to ‘ground zero’. The people of America will create a monument in the memory of those who died in 9/11 at ‘ground zero’, but who will throw flowers at those who innocently lost their lives in Afghanistan in their thousands in pits below ground zero? The US government brought to ‘justice’ those suspected of direct or indirect involvement in the events that led to 9/11, but who will bring to justice those who kill in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, and now in Libya and much of the Arab world? Sanitising these murders (because this is what they are) as ‘collateral damage’ does not wash away the guilt of the perpetrators of these heinous crimes.
Whilst we share our emotion with friends in Norway, we ask them to share our sentiments on the violence perpetrated by the forces of the North Atlantic Treaty Alliance (NATO) - which include those from Norway - in many theatres of violence, especially in the southern hemisphere of our shared common earth. In this part of the globosphere live fragile societies. Their fragility is a product of several factors - internal as well as external. Not to be discounted, especially in Africa, is the mess left behind by the Empire during its colonial past.
In fact, the Empire never left Africa. It simply put in power its surrogate rulers who continued to govern these ‘newly independent countries’ and their neo-colonial economies on behalf of the Empire. This is true even of such nationalist and Pan-African leaders like Muammar Qaddafi, who tried to break away from the Empire only to succumb to their pressure during the last ten years. But Qaddafi had, in the meantime, lost his credibility, his goodwill, with the Empire. The Empire prefers to rule through more supplicant and reliable agencies than Qaddafi. And so it took advantage of the ‘Arab Spring’ to intervene militarily in Libya. It took advantage of the confusion in the countries in the South to get a resolution passed in the Security Council on the ‘no fly zone’ that opened the door to western intervention. Soon the Africans and some of the Arab countries realised that they had made a mistake. The African Union has tried since then to push for a ceasefire and a negotiated peace agreement, but NATO has preferred to turn a deaf ear to the African Union and a blind eye to the tragedy in Libya. Any pretence that the continued bombing and strafing of Libya is in conformity with Security Council resolution must be meant for those that have taken leave of their refined senses of judgement and empathy.
Anders Breivik’s senseless killings and NATO’s senseless bombing of Libya are both acts of political violence. What is it that makes Breivik’s action unacceptable and NATO’s acceptable? There are those, of course, who will find the differences between the two, especially lawyers and economists in the West whose whole life is dedicated to find ‘reasons’ and ‘justifications’ for defending the interests and actions of the ruling elites and corporations in the West. Reason succeeds where the instinct has stopped. Vulgar minds take over where the spirits have died.
Realpolitik rationale and neoliberal economic theories are offered by the vulgar ‘intellectuals’ to provide the rationale for the drone attacks in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and austerity measures for the ordinary people in Greece and Ireland to protect the interests of banks ‘too big to fail’. Anders Breivik’s killings and NATO’s bombing of Libya are both senseless. But out of the first might, hopefully, come some national reflection on the virtues of multiculturalism. Out of the second will come…what? More tragedy, more killings?
Fear leads to paranoia. When fear of the immigrants and the Islamists seized the impressionable (probably also psychologically unstable) Breivik, he resorted to the gun. Fear is also at the root of American paranoia, and the reason behind resorting to the gun, scaled up a thousand times. In a previous column for Pambazuka News, I wrote on ‘Imperial Neurosis and the Dangers of "humanitarian" Interventionism’. In that article I wrote that the nightmare scenario for the Empire in the Arab region involves three basic ingredients. One is the rise of Iran and what the Empire ‘perceives’ as the Islamic ‘fundamentalist’ threat. The second is a change in the balance of power in the region that in the long run is most certainly going against the security and wellbeing of Israel, unless the Empire and Israel make fundamental changes in their dealings with the Palestinians. And the third is the deepening economic crisis within the capitalist system. The Empire’s understanding and responses to the above triple challenges is neurotic. Neurosis is a condition of mind that is based on an irrational phobia and what is recognised in the medical world as an obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). This applies to nations as well as to individuals.
The US and much of Europe are seized by an OCD reaction to ‘unpleasant’ events in the southern hemisphere of the globe (such as in the Sudan or Somalia) that they do not have the knowledge or the skills to comprehend. Comprehension is a deeper word than just ‘knowing’. The so-called ‘development aid’ and its polar extreme - militaristic interventions - are parts of the Western response to the ‘problems’ they see in the global South. These are parts of the ‘knowledge kit’ of the West. But they come from a shallow understanding - not deep comprehension - of the South. Throwing money at the poverty in Africa and throwing bombs at the Islamists have the same primeval root - fear and paranoia.
‘Development aid’ and ‘drone attacks’ are perceived by the Empire as ‘solutions’ to ‘problems’ in the South that they do not comprehend, or take the time to comprehend. The young members of the Labour Party in Norway were meeting in Utoya Island, I understand, to reflect on the challenges the youth face in the times they live.
Now, as many thinking persons in the North as well as in the South have been warning, the chickens have come home to roost. This essay is not an effort to opportunistically use the Utoya tragedy to politicise issues of concern to those of us who come from the South. Or even to say ‘I told you so’. That would be foolish. Nobody in his or her right mind would want to use the Norwegian tragedy for self-vindication. Utoya gives us much more than that. It gives us a moment to pause and let the instinct, the human spirit, guide the thinking. It gives us a moment to comprehend the deeper meaning of human existence.
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* Yash Tandon is a writer on development theory and practice, chairman of SEATINI and senior adviser to the South Centre.
* Please send comments to editor[at]pambazuka[dot]org or comment online at Pambazuka News.