July 28, 2011

It is easy to take pride in being Norwegian this week, when hundreds of thousands of people gather on our public squares without a yell for revenge or death. The Norwegian response to the terror of July 22 has been exceptional: after the initial chaos, calm solidarity. But I fear that it would not have been so if the murders had been committed by a Norwegian-born Muslim with sympathies for al-Qaeda, instead of by a white man. We have in recent decades grown accustomed to reacting and thinking differently about “them” and “us.”

To be able to do what the terrorist of Oslo did on July 22, I think you have to be mad. But there are two kinds of madness: psychopathic and political.

These days, when a mad person with a Muslim background commits an act of terrorism, it is seen as a result of his or her religion. The clinical madness needed to be a killer on this scale is explained through the political madness of fundamentalism. But when a non-Muslim right-wing extremist, such as the terrorist of Oslo and Utoya or the Oklahoma City bomber, commits the same kind of atrocity, the political madness is said to result from clinical madness.

One of the most frightening things in the aftermath of last week’s murders is that Anders Behring Breivik’s manifesto makes clear that his sort of political madness is not unknown to us. On the contrary, many of his words have been used time and again in Norway in recent years. Phrases such as “secret Islamification” and “Muslim takeover” have appeared not just on obscure Web pages but also on TV and radio, in articles and in the general debate. Islamophobia has become an accepted part of our public life.

Thirty years ago it would have been different. In the Norway where I grew up, it was not possible to be taken seriously in public discourse if you claimed that there was an essential difference between people of different religions, races or nationality. The Norway I grew up in was politically correct. Teachers would stop you in class if someone said that Muslims were more likely to be killers, black people more likely to be stupid or white people morally superior. Newspapers wouldn’t print articles claiming such things, and no one in their senses would arrange debates on the idea that foreigners posed a danger to the Norwegian way of life. But political correctness has become a punch line over the past two decades, and somewhere along the way we lost decency in public debate.

Indeed, after 20 years of wars in or against countries in the Middle East, 10 years after the horrors of Sept. 11 and in the aftermath of this terrorism, we no longer speak about people of other religions or nations as if they were as humane as ourselves. Instead, we turn them into enemies. All over Europe we have grown used to hearing of conspiracies on Eurabia, how Muslim women give birth to many children to take over Europe, how “their” culture is less developed than ours, “their” religion is more inclined toward war, “their” humanity less than ours. What was extreme 25 years ago has become commonplace today — not just in online debates but far into academic circles in Norway. And as the general conversation has become more extreme, the extreme has to move further out.

Some have said that Norway lost its innocence on July 22. Unfortunately, that is not completely true. A country that has been at war in Afghanistan for 10 years, that has fought in Iraq and that is an eager bomber of Tripoli cannot be called innocent. But it has been a good country to live in, a largely welcoming and egalitarian community. I hope the solidarity that has arisen from our collective sorrow can make it even better.

Nobody but the killer bears responsibility for the atrocities in Oslo. But our society has a responsibility to shift our public debate. We are responsible for the wars we wage, the words we use and the way we treat people who are different from ourselves. This is a responsibility we in Norway have not taken in recent years.

If something good might come out of the Oslo terror, I hope it will be a change in the way we talk and think about “others.” On the ruins of our government buildings and the lost youth of Utoya we have the possibility to create a society in which we will grant people the same humanity regardless of religion, nation, gender or sexual orientation. Norway must take back the political correctness of my youth. We must regain decency in our public debate.

Aslak Sira Myhre is director of the House of Literature in Oslo. He is an author and a former leader of the Red Electoral Alliance.