I felt compelled to write about the tragedy in Norway this week, but I scarcely know where to begin. In the face of such a repugnant act I am left bewildered and struggle to make sense of it.
Norway is a socially progressive country with one of the highest standards of living in the world. Norway despite its small size has been influential in world affairs. For example Norwegian negotiators brokered the Oslo-Accords in an attempt to solve the Palestinian/Israeli conflict. The unprovoked massacre of more than seventy of its citizens, largely young people, must have come as a terrible shock.
When most of the news headlines over the past decade (certainly since September 2001) have focused on linking terror with Fundamentalist Islam it is easy to forget there are latent threats even in the most civil societies that seem inevitably to manifest in such horrors from time to time. In April 1996 we had a taste of the same horror with the Port Arthur Massacre.
The head of ASIO, David Irvine, in a recent speech warned that terror threats “most likely would come from ‘home-grown’ extremists with few, if any, links to international terror organisations.” Further he stated that the domestic spy agency was carrying out ”literally hundreds” of investigations into terrorist threats, from vague and minor to specific and serious.
Greg Sheridan writing in the Australian on Thursday 28 July 2011 asked the telling question “is modern terrorism essentially a pathology or an ideology.” Clearly the evidence would suggest it is both (although the former seems to be in the majority).
The good Dr Phil assures me there are no bad people there are only people with bad ideas. Then the fundamental question is how do we acquire bad ideas? The bad ideas that lead to such terrorist act can be acquired in two main ways.
Firstly we can be indoctrinated. We are the most vulnerable to indoctrination when we are younger. And there are plenty of evidence to suggest that mainstream terrorism is perpetuated by the recruitment of young people to the cause of hate and destruction.
Secondly we can have defects of mind that prevent us from seeing the world in constructive ways. Sometimes this can be an organic problem such that the brain is somehow defective. Or it can be a result of our socialisation where because of exposure to aberrant ideas or deprivation of needed social stimuli our cognitive development is impaired. As a result we don’t have a world-view that enables productive congress with our world and especially our fellow humans.
When contemplating the horrific event in Norway I was reminded of some of the writings of Arthur Koestler. He postulated that mankind had a fatal flaw. He believed that this was due to the inordinately fast evolutionary development of the human brain. In a couple of hundred years, merely a blink of an eye in evolutionary terms, the brains of our ancestors more than doubled in size. A lot of this increase was the development of the cerebral cortex, theoretically the site of our rationality. Koestler’s contention was that this happened so quickly that our rationality is not well integrated with the other functions of our brain. He postulated that as a result our rationality had often to play second fiddle to our baser instincts and our irrational emotive responses. Now I am not so sure that this hypothesis would be endorsed by today’s evolutionary psychologists, but when I read it forty years ago it had certain plausibility.
But perhaps now I would think that the pathology is not so much an evolutionary issue but a developmental problem. It seems that some of those who have committed such crimes are those who have had inadequate socialisation which is probably exacerbated by some genetic predisposition. Therefore in those cases where terror has manifested from those who do not have ideological indoctrination but are susceptible to such developmental issues their malevolent worldviews are constrained by who they can identify with.
Looking at the problem another it occurs to me that we are in danger of those who hold absolutist beliefs. Thus those who believe that their beliefs, be they about religion, race, nationality or politics, are the truth and could admit of no other have found a powerful mechanism to emphasise their separateness. If I am stridently Australian or Christian or Caucasian or liberal and can’t relate to those who are not, or if I am Iranian or Muslim or Sinoid or conservative and can’t relate to those who are not, I have severely restricted my ability to relate to the world. As we pass through these filters those with whom we can indentify become smaller and smaller. And all those who fall outside my little pigeonholes seem somehow unlike me and therefore less than human.
It would be good if we could all acknowledge we are human beings first. We have a commonality that is more important than our differences. And of course our differences are largely a matter of chance. I didn’t choose to be Australian. I was fortunate that my parents were Australian and I was born and continue to live in such a marvelous country. I take no pride in it because I had nothing to do with it. It was just my good luck that fate ordained it so.
Similarly I can’t stake any personal claim to my Caucasian genetics because, after all, (as the good Dr Phil is prone to remind me and others) I didn’t choose my parents.
And even in those areas where we think we might have more choice, our religions and our politics, we are still mostly conformists who take on the beliefs of those around us. If I had been born in Islamabad then I would most likely have been a Muslim. If my friends at University had been members of Young Labor then there is a very good chance that I would have adopted similar political views.
So in the end the enlightened person has come to the conclusion that whether I am Catholic or Protestant, Buddhist or Hindu, whether I am Indian, American or Chinese is of small moment compared to the fact that I am human – just like you and everybody else. It is not our differences that are important but our commonality.
The terrorists, fundamentalists and psychopaths seem easily to be able to murder those they perceive as different to themselves. But as we have seen, such differences are randomly disposed on us.
As a result of this ignorance some seventy or more Norwegians have now died.
But how to respond to such an atrocity? As I sat here typing these words the news broadcast informs me that the first burial ceremony of one of the victims has happened. The victim was a young Muslim woman. The ceremony was held in a mosque but it was a joint Muslim and Christian ceremony. Let us take comfort from that ecumenical approach.
And in the media today I read that the Norwegians have set up a website in support of the murderer’s mother. They have been concerned about the anguish she must feel in dealing with her son’s horrible action.
How good is that! Instead of revenge and hatred they responded with love. It is a fine example to us all.
I don’t have any great words of wisdom to relate in response to this terrible event. As I said at the beginning, I struggle to understand it. The sacrifice of those young lives to the aberrant delusions of a psychopath is indeed a great tragedy. That tragedy is likely to be perpetuated every time our egos compel us to emphasise our differences instead of realising our differences are but small matters compared with our commonalities. And such delusions can be constructed by indoctrination into an ideology or by the misconstruing of our human circumstances because of pathology and inappropriate socialisation.