By JONAS GAHR STORE
Published: July 19, 2012
One year ago Sunday, Norway experienced one of the worst extremist attacks Western Europe has witnessed since World War II when Anders Behring Breivik systematically killed 77 people and injured hundreds of others.
Erlend Aas Norway Out/European Pressphoto Agency
Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg’s reaction was unequivocal. He declared that Norway’s strongest weapon in responding to this was to employ more openness and more democracy.
Norwegians took up his call. Neither politicians nor the media turned it into a partisan political issue. The public reacted with grief but did not call for extraordinary measures. And the state chose to prosecute Brevik in an ordinary public court with full media coverage.
Many outside Norway have questioned this. Does not responding with openness allow an extremist to broadcast his fanatical views? Does it not risk strengthening extremist movements? Why not create a special, closed legal setting?
As Norway’s foreign minister, I have been frequently confronted with these questions over the past year. Without prejudice to the ongoing legal proceedings, I believe these are key questions. How we, as independent nations and as an international community, should fight violent political extremism is at the heart of politics in the 21st century. I also believe that Norway’s experience after the attack has important lessons that may be relevant beyond our borders.
The last decade has shown us that ideology can never fully explain why specific groups or individuals commit unimaginable acts. Social, psychological and individual factors always play crucial roles. Yet political extremism does not grow in a vacuum. Ideas are the oxygen that allows it to flourish and spread. Extremist perspectives win sympathy and recruits because they offer narratives that claim to identify deep injustices and enemies.
Without this fuel, the blaze of extremism is quickly extinguished. Al Qaeda networks were nourished by the ideas of Islamic fundamentalists just as Breivik invoked and may have drawn sustenance from the ideas and stories of other Western extremists.
Confronting and undermining the narratives and ideas of extremism must therefore be one of our key tasks. To do this, we must retain the courage of our convictions in the face of extremism.
Virtually all modern forms of extremism accuse liberal Western democratic systems of being hypocritical and, ultimately, weak. Al Qaeda portrays the West as anti-Islamic imperialists masquerading as promoters of democracy. Right wing extremism suggests the West is committing cultural suicide through its lax judicial system and naïve multiculturalism.
Both have committed horrific acts designed to bait us into betraying our values and making them martyrs. In fact, it is remarkable to see the many similarities between these two sorts of extremism in their disdain for diversity and their indiscriminate violence against civilians.
In this context, it is a mistake to treat crimes committed by extremists as exceptions, subject to special processes. They must be held accountable in accordance with and to the full extent of the law. Hiding suspects from public view merely dehumanizes the perpetrators and undermines any moral or judicial lessons.
By contrast, prosecuting extremists who have committed crimes in a public courtroom makes it all the more shockingly clear that their horrific acts were undertaken by human beings, and that all of us must work every day to combat the ideas of extremism.
It has been remarkable to observe that the younger generation of Norwegiens — and especially the young survivors of the island massacre — have expressed their trust in Norway’s open approach to dealing with the affair. They know that a political system based on the rule of law cannot turn its back on its standard procedures on an ad hoc basis; that doing so would only provide extremists with evidence of the supposed double standards of democracy.
I believe that the same basic principle holds true in the global fight against terrorism. Osama bin Laden successfully provoked the West into using exceptional powers in ways that sometimes have been in conflict with its commitment to human rights and democracy. This only strengthened the case of extremists, and it shows that we should try to avoid exceptionalism and instead trust in the open system we are defending.
This is not a soft approach. It requires and allows for tough security measures. But it is firmly anchored in the rule of law and the values of democracy and accountability.
That the open public square can be an impressive antidote to extremism should not be surprising. This is not only a bedrock democratic principle. We also have ample historic evidence that extremist views thrive best when confined to the gutter.
Open debate is our strongest tool in standing up to extremism. The far more dangerous avenue is to force extremist ideas underground, where they can fester without competition.
Besides, in a globalized world where ideas and networks circulate beyond the control of states, we have little choice but to forcefully present our strongest counter-arguments and embrace the challenge of fighting extremism in the open.
Jonas Gahr Store is the Norwegian minister of foreign affairs.