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How to React to Lone-Wolf Terror Attacks: A Lesson from Norway

02/05/2015 10:38 am ET | Updated Apr 07, 2015

He was undoubtedly one of the worst "lone-wolf" terrorists in modern history. On July 22, 2011, after trying to take out Norway's political leadership in Oslo with a car bomb and killing eight people, Anders Breivik boarded a ferry wearing a homemade police uniform and took it to a nearby island where he murdered another 69 people, most of them teenagers attending a youth camp run by the country's Labour Party. Hunting them down methodically, as if he had all the time in the world, he acted in the coldest of cold blood. Some of them were shot in the head at point-blank range. The killer, the "wolf" of that moment, committed his act, he claimed, to stop the "Islamicization" of his country. He was also against "feminism," "cultural Marxism," "Eurabia," and his country's ruling Labour Party.

Just stop for a moment and try to imagine the response here, had such a thing happened. I guarantee you that, in security terms, our world would have been changed in major ways. It would have grown even more controlled, surveilled, and militarized. More money would have flowed into the coffers of the national security state. More private contractors would have been hired. You know the routine. In the U.S., smaller versions of such attacks, like the Boston Marathon bombing, have galvanized the country and so helped further expand the national security apparatus, as well as the locking down of ever more places and things. In these years, fevers of panic about terror and terrorists have repeatedly swept the country. Put another way, otherwise pathetic individuals who would normally have no way of affecting our American world turn out to be remarkably capable of altering our lives and society in major ways.

Norway is a small country. One in four Norwegians reported knowing "someone affected by the attacks," including the prime minister at that time, Jens Stoltenberg. Under the circumstances, it's remarkable that Stoltenberg insisted "the Norwegian response to violence is more democracy, more openness, and greater political participation" and ordinary citizens refused to react in the American fashion. In the wake of an "incident" that might have transformed any society, a madman's cold-blooded political slaughter of innocents, Norwegians, individually and en masse, chose not to panic or let their world be altered by Breivik's horrific acts. They did not build a greater counterterror security structure; they did not change their laws or create special terror legislation; they did not try Breivik in some special way; they did not even close their parliament and ring it with fortifications. They were determined not to let Breivik deprive them of the openness they valued. They exhibited neither hysteria nor bloodlust. It was, in our world, the bravest of collective acts, stunning in its restraint.

If only we Americans could say the same. Now, as Matthew Harwood of the ACLU writes in "The Lone-Wolf Terror Trap" at TomDispatch, alarm over what is supposed to be our latest terror threat -- "lone-wolf" attacks -- is on the rise here in the U.S, and is more or less guaranteed to change our society for the worse. Though curiously, our most notorious "lone-wolf" killer, Army Staff Sergeant Robert Bales, who murdered 16 Afghans -- nine of them children -- and wounded six more in a night of cold-blooded mayhem in Kandahar, Afghanistan, caused hardly a ripple here. All that's now needed is a high-profile lone-wolf attack in "the homeland," and it doesn't have to be anywhere near as devastating as Breivik's or Bales's. (Most lone-wolf operations, as Harwood indicates, are not especially effective or destructive.) In the meantime, while the lone wolf makes his (and yes, they are mostly men) appearance in our American world of national security fear and hysteria, there have been no serious attempts to put the exceedingly modest dangers involved in perspective. So TomDispatch is proud to have what may be the first such article of our moment.