In April 1995, a powerful explosion shattered a building housing the offices of several federal departments in downtown Oklahoma City. Almost everyone thought it was a terrorist attack by the Muslim fanatics who had attacked the World Trade Center two years previously. They were stunned when it turned out that the bomber was Timothy McVeigh, a 27-year-old Gulf War veteran and a white radical with ultra-rightwing views.
Norway’s tragedy reminds me of the Oklahoma City bombing. Scenarios involving Islamic, Kurdish or Libyan connections were soon replaced with the shocking news: the main suspect is a true-blue Norwegian national, one Anders Behring Breivik.
The tragedy in Oklahoma City now looks like a sinister foretelling of the events that later took place in the United States. Timothy McVeigh said he wanted to punish the “tyrannical” U.S. government for what he and other ultra-right radicals regarded as “treasonous actions against the Constitution of the United States.”
Fifteen years later, during the 2010 congressional elections, public attention focused on politicians who share McVeigh’s passion, such as the Tea Party movement which views the federal authorities as well-nigh their worst enemy. The roots of this phenomenon run deep in American history.
But the current polarization of society, the radicalization of views, and process of alienation, which results in the different sides not prepared to cede an inch even though they are fully aware that their stubbornness will only worsen the situation – as exemplified by the debt ceiling stalemate – have reached a really alarming level. The socio-political mechanism used to coordinate public views is malfunctioning increasingly frequently.
The tragic events in Europe can be compared to those in the United States. There is a growing gap between the elite and the electorate whose sense of stability has been profoundly shaken. Populist protest parties are popping up everywhere. They hold broadly isolationist, protectionist views and oppose immigration, cultural diversity and market liberalization. These are all closely bound up with European integration, an elitist experiment launched in the second half of the 20th century that currently involves the whole of the Old World. Norway, not an EU member, is nevertheless tightly bound by the union’s norms and regulations.
Breivik actively contributed to anti-Muslim Internet forums. He has apparently confessed, and may have been motivated by a desire to draw public attention to the “treasonous” policy of the authorities who, he has claimed, are destroying society with their policy of multiculturalism. This potential terrorist demanded the total cultural assimilation of immigrants and complained that the government has lost the ability to govern and is being led instead by its own “empty rhetoric.”
There have always been ultra-right movements in Scandinavia and also a tradition of political violence, especially in Sweden. But it used to be the domain of marginal figures, people who live on the edge of society. The Norway attack, if perpetrated by Breivik and any possible accomplices he might have had (remember that McVeigh had a collaborator – an old army buddy), was most likely an isolated act carried out by mad fanatics. But the Oklahoma City bombing also functioned as a prelude to the deepening crisis in U.S. society — a society unable to come to terms with the rapidity of change on the domestic and international scenes. Similarly, the Oslo tragedy may turn out to be an ill omen of social cataclysms yet to come in the Old World, where people are failing to respond fast enough to all the challenges of globalization.
The best metaphor for the current American crisis is the 2007 film by the Cohen brothers, “No Country for Old Men.” At the end of George W. Bush’s rule, when 80% of Americans thought the country was headed the wrong way, Joel and Ethan Cohen showed that the problem does not lie with Bush, as many thought, but with the fractures in society that appeared long before Bush (the action takes place in Texas in 1980).
The character played by Javier Bardem personifies the cold-blooded, irrational but inspired violence that is eating away at the fabric of society, revealing the worst imaginable human traits which people of the “old school” can neither accept nor understand.
The absurdity of international politics in which the boundary between war and humane acts (the concept of “humanitarian intervention” formulated in the 1990s) has been consciously eroded, resonates with the destructive social processes underway in some countries. Taken together, this has gone beyond the “no country for old men” metaphor – and is creating a world that is no place for anyone.