"I saw people being shot. I tried to sit as quietly as possible. I was hiding behind some stones. I saw him once, just 20, 30 meters away from me. I thought 'I'm terrified for my life,'" the young survivor said to a Reuters reporter. "I thought of all the people I love."
And there's the moment, in all its politics and horror: no more than this. Young adults -- teenagers -- being stalked and methodically murdered at their bucolic summer camp on Utoya Island in Norway. In God's name, why?
This is the question we ask instantaneously, with sucked-in breath. Why? The question is bigger than any answer we make up. The killer, Anders Behring Breivik, had an agenda, of course. The Utoya murders, along with the deaths meted out by the bomb he detonated in Oslo a short while earlier -- 76 victims in all -- were explicit political killings; but first, they were the product of some psycho-social kink in the human condition, some dark permission to do evil in the name of good, which Breivik, the self-styled Knight Templar, seized in his private lunacy.
Before we slice and dice the killer's anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant, death-to-multiculturalism agenda -- which yields nothing in terms of the answers we seek at the deepest emotional level -- we need, I think, to acknowledge this: Any political "side," any righteous believer in a cause, can seize the same dark permission Breivik did. This is humanity's ever-present temptation: to be so right we can justify dehumanizing, and killing, our enemies.
For me, the question in the wake of any coolly planned slaughter, whether political or personal, becomes: How do we minimize our collective risk from armed true believers and the righteously aggrieved?
The day after the tragedy, the mayor of Oslo stated the complex answer as simply as possible: "I don't think security can solve problems. We need to teach greater respect."
But the major media outlets, so vast in their reach and full of themselves, spent little time grappling with the implications of this comment or thrashing in horrified uncertainty beyond their political comfort zones. They became predictably preoccupied with the lesser question of Breivik's political agenda, focusing much attention on the 1,500-page "manifesto" he had written (which his killing rampage successfully publicized), about the liberation of Europe from the clutches of non-believers and liberal accomodationists.
In other words, the major media failed utterly -- as usual -- to look at the issue of violence itself, and its causes, and lapsed into analyses of viewpoints and sides. The sinister irrelevance of this analysis -- at least in the absence of deeper and more complex coverage -- was revealed in the first wave of mistaken commentary, before it was known precisely who had perpetrated the mayhem. Some pundits, reporters and editorial writers jumped the gun and blamed... OMG, Muslim terrorists! And the word went out.
"Norway certainly did not buy itself much grace from the jihadis for staying out of the Iraq war, or for Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg's demand that Israel open its borders with Gaza, or for his calls for a Palestinian unity government between Fatah and its terrorist cousin Hamas."
Thus the Wall Street Journal, in its lead editorial in the first edition of the paper to come out after the shootings (as pointed out by David Dayen at FireDogLake), immediately began grinding an anti-Islam political axe, embarking on a neocon clash-of-civilizations diatribe. Oh the innocence of the freedom-loving West! And Jennifer Rubin of the Washington Post, reminding us that the Bush-Cheney doctrine lives, used the occasion to call for more defense spending so we could continue to fight al-Qaida.
Fox News, not so surprisingly, was quick to blame Muslim terrorists for the Norway killings, and juxtaposed a false news story asserting this with a report bashing the planned Islamic community center near the site of the World Trade Center.
And even the New York Times had a hard time letting go of the idea that Muslim terrorists killed the Norwegian teens, or at least acted as spiritual brethren and teachers for evildoers with other political agendas. Their point was that all evil is lumped on the other side of the war on terror. No matter who killed the Norwegians, Muslim extremists are the permanent bad guys. And our hands and our wars are clean.
This is worse than bad reporting. It's a massive cover-up of the roots of human violence. What if Breivik, who demonstrated, after all, a capacity for meticulous planning, had managed to steal or, what the heck, build a drone aircraft, and had bombed Utoya Island from the safety of his apartment complex? Would that have exonerated the Muslims?
"As they approached closer, I saw that the truck was riddled with bullets and shrapnel -- full of dead insurgents, decapitated corpses. I'll never forget this. A very young PFC in the back of the truck lifted a decapitated head. 'We really fucked these guys up, didn't we?' Other soldiers were celebrating on top of the bodies. (The dead were) mostly teenage boys from the local community."
This fragment of testimony from the 2008 Winter Soldier testimony in Silver Spring, Md., by Iraq War vet Jeffrey Smith, exposes the lie of good sides and bad sides. Anders Behring Breivik is our creation.
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Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist, contributor to One World, Many Peaces and nationally syndicated writer. His new book, Courage Grows Strong at the Wound (Xenos Press) is now available. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit his website at commonwonders.com.
© 2011 TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES, INC.