Norway: it’s not naive to defend liberty

After Friday’s murderous attacks Norwegians are right to resist increased surveillance that will compromise citizens’ freedoms.

Nathalie Rothschild

Topics World

Before all the gruesome details of Friday’s harrowing attacks in Norway had emerged, speculation was rife as to who was responsible and how Norway should respond. In international television studios and opinion pages, several commentators remarked on Norway’s ‘lack of preparedness’ and false sense of safety. There was outright condemnation of Norway’s ‘absurdly slack security’ and hints that this is a wake-up call for a country that has long imagined itself to be one of the safest places on Earth. Surely, some suggested, Norwegians can’t be so naive as to believe that openness is an appropriate value in this era of global terror?

The proper response to this kind of chastisement came from Norwegian prime minister Jens Stoltenberg, who was asked at a press conference hours after the attack whether the events would make Norway a less open society. He said: ‘Our answer must be more democracy, more openness, to show that we will not be cowed by this kind of violence.’

Norway and its Scandinavian neighbours are indeed known for their ‘slack security’ and for cherishing openness. Here, politicians still move about relatively freely and among Scandinavians there is still a measure of resistance against efforts to roll out surveillance regimes. For instance, being under the constant, watchful gaze of CCTV cameras, as Brits are, is an alien concept.

It is precisely this sense of security that terrorists like Anders Behring Breivik, the right-wing racist who carried out Friday’s attacks, want to shatter. The aim of terrorism is not just to kill and maim, but also to instill a sense of insecurity and paranoia across society. Instead of giving in to this, the proper response should be a show of resilience, to demonstrate that the democratic values that terrorists – whether of Muslim or Christian persuasion – attack are not so easily done away with.

Unfortunately, in the past decade politicians and lawmakers in Western societies have perpetuated a politics of fear, rather than resilience, in response to terrorist attacks. In the UK and elsewhere, there has been a rollout of heavy-handed security regimes, with increased surveillance, clampdowns on free speech, the extension of police powers to issue stop-and-search orders, and so on – all in the name of ‘counter-terrorism’. As fundamental liberties are trampled on in the name of preventing attacks, our leaders are in fact doing the terrorists’ dirty work for them.

As for Friday’s attacks, the full picture is yet to emerge as to what Anders Behring Breivik’s motives were, whether he acted alone or with the assistance of a wider network, and what precisely he imagined his heinous act would achieve. In statements to his lawyer, he said that he wanted to hurt the ruling Labour Party and its recruitment as much as possible, which is, presumably, why he chose as his targets the government quarters in Oslo and an idyllic, isolated island where the next generation of Social Democrats gather every year for a summer camp.

But this was no precisely-targeted attack. Instead, for Behring Breivik, this was a warning to Norway as a whole. He has said that he wanted to change the political climate in Norway through violence. In other words, he wants to re-shape Norwegian society to fit with his unhinged world outlook, as described in a 1,500-page document that he penned and titled ‘2083 – A European Declaration of Independence’. In this diary-like pamphlet, compiled over nine years, Behring Breivik attacks everyone from Muslims to proponents of multiculturalism and members of the ‘cultural Marxist elite’.

Too often over the past decade, terrorists have indeed been allowed to re-shape society through violence. Not because they have won large swathes of people over to their misanthropic causes but because political rulers have used the spectre of terrorism to justify clampdowns on some fundamental freedoms, infusing Western societies with a climate of illiberalism. Now, instead of chastising Norway for being ‘naive’ for holding on for so long to democratic values, it should be encouraged not to give them up.

Scandinavia is, of course, not immune to illiberal impulses. For instance, since Sweden experienced its first suicide bombing at the end of last year, it has seen an extension of the state’s surveillance powers and some vocal lobbying for clamping down on freedom of expression and association as a way to prevent terrorism.

At the time, some Swedish politicians took the opportunity to defend the fiercely debated ‘FRA law’, which gives the Swedish intelligence bureau the right to snoop on every single email, telephone call, facsimile and SMS message crossing Sweden’s borders. Others said that the Stockholm attack justified the terror-prevention law that was introduced in December 2010. This law criminalises public incitement, recruitment and education ‘for the purpose of terrorism and other serious crimes’. It is designed to meet the requirements of the European Council’s convention on the prevention of terrorism. As similar laws in Britain have shown, these measures tend to blur the boundaries between speech and action, between thought and deed, as anything from championing Hamas to speaking ill of the West or criticising multiculturalism can be categorised as speech that ‘incites terrorism’.

Not only can such laws have severe long-term consequences for citizens’ liberties, while doing little practical to stop terrorism, but they also help instill a ‘better safe than sorry’ attitude that is paralysing and encourages a deep sense of distrust and paranoia.

Norway’s security services may have misjudged the threat from right-wingers, as has been claimed, but it is impossible to predict fully the erratic behaviour of deeply disturbed individuals. It is also undesirable to organise society according to the presumption that a terrorist attack may always be about to happen.

Those now lecturing Norway on being too open, too free and too lax would do well to listen to some of the voices coming from within Norway itself. Rather than rallying for knee-jerk draconian measures, in the past couple of days many Norwegians have spoken up for liberty, stating that more intervention into the private lives of citizens is not a price worth paying. As one commentator put it, ‘We will not have a Norway with new restrictions on movement, more uniforms and therefore also more interventions in the lives of those of us who do not want to comprehend the language of terror. Then the terrorists would win.’

Let’s hope that Norway’s leaders stay true to their promise of retaliating Friday’s attacks ‘with more democracy’ – and that other leaders pay heed to it, too.

Nathalie Rothschild is an international correspondent for spiked. Visit her personal website here.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics World


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