Like many, I have spent the last few days trying to wrap my mind about what happened in Norway last Friday: Namely, the slaughter of 70-odd innocents by a heavily armed white, rightwing, anti-Muslim extremist who may or may not have acted alone.
The facts of the case are difficult enough to absorb without wondering what has happened to the peaceful, beautiful, largely harmonious nation of 5 million people.
When I think of Norway, I think of the wonderful Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg, the Oslo-Bergen train ride over the mountainous spine of Norway, the skiers gliding up to high-country rail stations and clattering on board the train with their gear, a father and daughter in Bergen harbor bobbing up to dockside with a load of fresh fish they had caught themselves in a small boat. It's difficult to reconcile these memories of Norway with the cracked concrete and blown-out windows in Oslo and the perfectly horrible sight of bodies in the water off the island where the mass shooting of Labor Party youth took place.
In the blogosphere, where opinion is never in short supply but facts don't always seem to matter, Left and pro-Muslim bloggers took scant time saying "see!'' and pointing out that Muslims hadn't carried out this latest terror attack, while scoring others for initially assuming they had.
They shouldn't congratulate themselves too much. It took 16 years following Timothy McVeigh's Oklahoma City attack of 1995 for mass murder on this scale to happen in a Western country that wasn't carried out by Muslims. Radicalized, jihadist Muslims - who, it must be said again and clearly understood, don't speak or act for the majority of decent people around the world who happen to be Muslim - have carried out many attacks in many countries in those 16 years, claiming thousands of lives. Condemning the acts of the shooter/bomber in custody, one Anders Behring Breivik, is certainly the right thing to do. It doesn't begin to excuse the terrorist acts of others - many aimed at travelers and commuters, such as the atrocities in Mumbai, London, Madrid and several locations in Egypt, notably the tourist magnet of Luxor.
As for the accused Norwegian killer, one irony here is that he has become a mirror image of the people he hates. This fact has not gone unnoticed in Norway.
"Thomas Hegghammer, a terrorism specialist at the Norwegian Defense Research Establishment, said (Breivik's online) manifesto bears an eerie resemblance to those issued by Osama bin Laden and other leaders of Al Qaeda, though rather from a Christian rather than a Muslim point of view,'' reports a July 24 New York Times story. "Like Mr. Breivik's manuscript, the major Al Qaeda declarations have detailed accounts of the Crusades, include a pronounced sense of historical grievance and call for apocalyptic warfare to defeat a religious and cultural enermy.''
Once again, it has become clear that we live in a dangerous world - as if we could forget. Among other things, this latest outrage fuels the fatalism of the it-can-happen-anywhere brigade. Indeed, terrorist attacks can happen anywhere, even in peaceful Norway. The facts remain, however, that some countries - India, Egypt, Indonesia, to name three - are targeted considerably more often than others, and most organized, mass attacks in recent years have come from jihadis.
Shattered and shaken, Norway will heal over time. As for concerns about the safety of travel there, I wouldn't hesitate to go back to Norway - and I am not a traveler driven by derring-do. As always, travelers should study the patterns of the threats to safety and go with the odds. There is never a guarantee, but the chances of remaining safe in some places are definitely better than in others, regardless of what relativists would have you believe.