The tragedy that befell Norway that left almost a hundred mostly young people dead, killed by a bombing and a shooting rampage, is a terrible horror. Even more horrifying, however, is how we reacted to it and how we continue to react to it.
Instead of rationally seeking the truth, the Western news media rushed to analyses that viewed the attacks as Islamic terrorism. CNN lead the charge by telling its international audience how the attacks had all the indications of the work of Muslim fundamentalists. CNN even went so far as to dig up irrelevant past happenings and associate them with the attack. The BBC and Fox News echoed similar discriminatory propaganda.
Even more strikingly, after all the diatribes on Islam appeared unfounded and maliciously inaccurate, no one apologised, although reporters often looked suspiciously disappointed that they had got it wrong.
The foolish stoking of hatred by Western news media that, as The News of the World scandal illustrates, is already suffering from a crisis of legitimacy, is symptomatic of the bankruptcy of much of a society that has been built around the glorification of war and the mantra of unequal and unsustainable consumption.
The glorification of the military is seen in the military parades that almost every country hosts at least annually, the skyrocketing military budgets, the movies on war heroes, even the pomp and circumstance of military funerals. While brave men that defend their countries should be respected, soldiers who participate in wars of aggression should be condemned.
The soldiers fighting in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Bahrain and elsewhere on foreign soil are not heroes. Rather they reflect the failures of modern society. They are examples of how we have failed to resolve disputes peacefully. Maybe it is not their fault that incompetent world leaders send them into the battlefield, but they are certainly not heroes for being too timid to stand up to their wrong-minded leaders. Nevertheless, most political leaders glorify the activities of their soldiers on foreign soil, who more often than not killing foreign nationals.
Today, our soldiers who are sent to kill on foreign soil almost always enlist locals to assist or to do their dirty business of killing locals. In Iraq, the US convinced Iraqis to assist in the killing of Iraqis and in Afghanistan and Libya NATO is doing its best to convince Libyans to kill fellow Libyans.
The message such glorification sends is that to kill people is courageous, laudable, the “thing to do”. Of course, the words of politicians express a more subtle view of the world, but their actions speak much louder than their words to the majority of their constituents.
Thus while Norway is portrayed a relatively peaceful society in its political rhetoric, it is also a member of NATO that has been involved in the major conflicts mentioned above.
These conflicts not only encourage violence, they also confuse the very nature of justice that is the foundation of hero worship and the obtuse moral justification of violence or war in the name of “good”. The Afghan, Iraqi and Libyan people never attacked the US. They never gave cause for a just war against them. Successive Western leaders have even reassured their people that these countries could never attack them, yet the people of these countries have been attacked and brutalised beyond modern comprehension.
Moreover, in cases like Israel’s continued abuse of Palestinians no adequate action has been taken. The Israel aggression against the Palestinian people is the longest standing unresolved major issue of massive and widespread human rights abuses on the international agenda. Yet the same countries that encouraged resort to violence against the people of Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, are blocking any action, including peaceful action, against Israel to end its violations of Palestinians’ human rights.
The injustice of such hypocrisy resonates profoundly with both right-minded people as well as those who are willing to take these injustices to new extremes.
The Norwegian mass murderer who massacred dozens of innocent Norwegians appears to have been driven by the same irrational sense of injustice. He allegedly supported Western cultural values, which he also associated with his support for the Israeli state. Indeed, he was personifying the values of violence just as have done states themselves so many times in recent years.
The gospel of violence that convinced a Norwegian to slaughter so many of his fellow countrymen and women is also linked to the mantra of consumption that drives our market societies. This mantra encourages us to view humanity as a commodity. Instead of acknowledging the intrinsic value of all human beings and nature itself, we see both as commodities to be exploited, traded, and in the view of some —such as the Norwegian mass murderer —destroyed.
While few people would go to the extremes of the Norwegian mass murderer, our leaders have, with our complacent compliance, consented to even greater mass murder. In Iraq, reliable estimates put deaths attributable to the war in the millions. Similarly in Afghanistan and Libya, where reliable estimates do not exist, a combined total of more than a few million are likely to die because of the armed conflicts that are continuing in those countries. Very little has been said about these millions of victims, yet they can be directly attributable to the international community’s —especially Western states —recourse to violence.
Driving much of this devaluation of humanity is our commitment to consumption that is driven by reliance on a commodification of society. The most obvious expression of this is the military industrial complex that drives the military of many Western economies. Norway is no exception.
To many, Norway seems a paradise. In 2007, The Economist’s Intelligence Unit claimed in its Global Peace Index that Norway was the most peaceful country in the world based on an evaluation of two-dozen indicators. Indeed, Norway’s military spending has decreased significantly since 1988, although it had recently began to rise again. And Norway is also perennially listed among the countries with the highest standards of living.
Norway’s generosity has at times been extraordinary. Its prime minister has unprecedentedly made a public pledge in front of the UN General Assembly to provide a billion US dollars of assistance to child health. Norway is also one of only five countries in 2010 to meet its commitment to provide overseas development assistance (ODA) at a rate of at least 0.7 per cent of its gross national income (GNI). In fact, Norway has met this commitment for several years in succession and even provided the highest percentage of ODA of any developed country in 2010, reaching a level of 1.1 per cent of GNI.
At the same time, however, Norway is one of the largest arms exporters in the world. Norway is also a member of the military alliance of NATO that in practice often attempts to resolve disputes using force. Norway’s NATO membership caused Norway to support the violence of NATO and various NATO allies abroad. For example, Norway has sent troops to Iraq and Afghanistan and has been involved in bombing the people of Libya.
At the same time Norway has profited handsomely from its engagement in violence. The newspaper Aftenposten estimates that Norway is making $57 million per day from the increased price of its oil that resulted from taking Libyan oil off the market. The United States that has increasing needs for maintaining its foreign military adventures is also Norway’s main client for military equipment and arms.
Norway’s government has conveniently sold its support for violence to its people by focusing them on the profits, which contribute to its high standard of living. Nevertheless, Norway’s support for violence both directly by engaging in NATO’s and NATO-allies’ aggression against people abroad, and indirectly by selling arms to states engaged in extraterritorial violence, also appears to legitimise violence in the minds of some Norwegians.
Moreover, Norway has increasingly been seen as a country that supports injustice against the least powerful and most vulnerable people in the world. Despite slight nuances in its position, Norway has also joined most of Europe in supporting Israel’s injustices against the people of Palestine. It has particularly failed to follow through with action to contribute to ending this circumstance of violence despite being in a position to do much more.
Similarly, adding some nuances of its own, Norway supports the European effort to shift more of the burden for combating climate change to developing countries, despite the fact that hundreds of millions of Africans could die from this climate injustice.
Thus despite its high material standard of living and its rhetoric, Norway’s actions have sent a strong message of reliance on violence against others who are more vulnerable. In this way, perhaps more than any other country in the world, Norway is an example of the hypocrisy of our current international order.
All states of the United Nations have proclaimed the goal of non-violence, committed to the peaceful settlement of their disputes, and agreed to cooperate together to achieve respect for all peoples’ human rights. Yet as even the example of a wealthy country like Norway shows, we act in ways that promote violence as our means of resolving disputes and ignore the longest-standing and most serious human rights abuses in the world.
Our mistakes are amplified by the press, or what Thomas Carlyle coined the “fourth estate” in his book On Heroes and Hero Worship. The mainstream media and even many in the alternative media have contributed to glorifying violence and its perpetrators. They cover mass murders with enthusiasm that can make many people envious of the attention. At the same time they ignore other suffering, often failing to utter critical words in the most unjust of situations.
The mainstream media has abdicated its role as an important contributor to social dialogue, as a guarantor of truth and broadmindedness. Instead, it has cowered to the role of treating news as a commodity with its only responsibility being its corporate bottom line. In turn, governments increasingly use the mainstream media to disseminate propaganda. This propaganda is often war propaganda, which is prohibited by international law, packaged in an enticing candy wrapping. The US perhaps hit a high point with such antics as embedding willing journalists among its armed forces. Countries such as Norway have been more nuanced, instead focusing their peoples’ attend on the material benefits of their exploitation of violence against others.
Rarely has the mainstream press reflected on the causes of violence and the harm that the culture of violence to which it contributes may bring. Norway has now felt the consequences. Its greatest tribute to the fallen innocent Norwegian youth would be for Norway to awaken to the needs of the greater good and have the courage to reject violence by forgoing any direct or indirect contributions to violence perpetrated by states.
Unless we can end our senseless glorification of the military, our lazy overdependence on the military-industrial economy, and our insane recourse to military options to resolve international disputes, we make such horrors as befell Norway almost certainties in joint our future.
The writer is a prominent international human rights lawyer.