The Oslo tragedy and media narratives

The facts of the Oslo bombing and shootings — already being called Norway’s September 11th — are still being discovered, and yet the mass media’s narrative, much like a preemptively written obituary of a public figure, was already neatly in place. Here are a few examples:

Kristian Harpviken, interview in Foreign Policy magazine:

“The only concrete supposition [as to the identity of the attackers] that would emerge in a Norwegian context would be al Qaeda.”

The Wall Street Journal:

“…In jihadist eyes [Norway] will forever remain guilty of being what it is: a liberal nation committed to freedom of speech and conscience, equality between the sexes, representative democracy and every other freedom that still defines the West. For being true to those ideals, Norwegians have now been made to pay a terrible price.” [Note: This quote appeared in the original version of the article, but the WSJ later deleted it along with other modifications, after it became apparent that a non-Muslim, non-al Qaeda-affiliated person was suspected of the crimes.]

Jennifer Rubin, The Washington Post:

“This is a sobering reminder for those who think it’s too expensive to wage a war against jihadists. I spoke to Gary Schmitt of the American Enterprise Institute, who has been critical of proposed cuts in defense and of President Obama’s Afghanistan withdrawal plan. ‘There has been a lot of talk over the past few months on how we’ve got al-Qaeda on the run and, compared with what it once was, it’s become a rump organization. But as the attack in Oslo reminds us, there are plenty of al-Qaeda allies still operating. No doubt cutting the head off a snake is important; the problem is, we’re dealing with global nest of snakes.'”

I could continue with additional quotes, but these and other, similar proclamations have already been covered and debunked by the likes of James Fallows at The Atlantic, Benjamin Doherty at Electronic Intifada, and especially Glenn Greenwald on Salon.com.

The point is that, not only is the media’s first instinct to jump to the Islamists-as-terrorists trope, but, as Greenwald helpfully exposes, sometimes the mistaken attribution to Islamic fundamentalists is the only prerequisite for labeling an act as “terrorism” in the first place. Thus, a horrifying act can only be terrorism if it’s committed by a Muslim; conversely, no matter how gruesome the act, it is not terrorism if it’s committed by someone other than a Muslim.

As it turns out, the story is already taking shape quite differently than initially reported. The New York Times’ lead article now states:

The Norwegian police on Saturday charged a man they identified as a right-wing fundamentalist Christian in connection with the bombing of a government building in central Oslo and a shooting attack on a nearby island that together killed at least 92 people.

As stunned Norwegians grappled with the deadliest attack in the country since World War II and a shocking case of homegrown terrorism, a portrait began to emerge of the suspect, Anders Behring Breivik, 32. He was described as a religious, gun-loving Norwegian obsessed with what he saw as the threat of multiculturalism and Muslim immigration to the cultural and patriotic values of his country.

“We are not sure whether he was alone or had help,” a police official, Roger Andresen, said at a televised news conference. “What we know is that he is right wing and a Christian fundamentalist.”

The enduring tragedy of the Oslo attacks is that the laughable performance of our mainstream media will go undetected and un-criticized by most, because it is far more convenient to stick to an accepted script than to question the prefabricated story-lines we’ve come to expect. The word “terrorism,” when used to such dubious and unproductive ends, has gained precisely the opposite of its original meaning: as my friend Sam described it, “This sort of language quickly becomes bloated beyond its meaning and has the tendency to pervert anything that precedes it or follows it. It is eager and anxious to be helpful but in doing so tries to excuse itself from being complicit with the historicity of the problems it is trying to rectify.”

By jumping to call anything and everything that is perpetrated by Islamists “terrorism” — even when, as in this case, the entire conjecture as to the identity of the participants was incorrect from the start — and refusing to use the same word to describe actions taken by other disaffected groups, we’ve stripped the word of all meaning. “Terrorism,” much like “Hitler” and “Nazi,” has undergone such a grotesque transformation in usage that it’s lost any true power it once had as a descriptor. Unfortunately, it seems very unlikely that anyone in a position of power is likely to notice or care.

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About Jay Pinho

Jay is a recent graduate of Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA) in New York. Previously he studied international security at L'Institut d'Études Politiques (Sciences Po) in Paris. He currently writes about politics, foreign affairs, and journalism and continues to make painstakingly slow progress in amateur photography.

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