Obsessed with Otherness

As the story of the attacks in Norway unfolded last week, an incredible fiction emerged describing what sort of person could be responsible for such violence. The immediate assumption by many in the West was a link to al-Qaida, and belief that these could only be the actions of an Islamic terrorist. This, of course, turned out to be patently false. This mistake, and even more so the subsequent media frenzy attempting to back-track, justify or lambast each other, has highlighted our ongoing obsession with creating the idea of an "other." 

We, as humans, have a tendency to want to distance ourselves from those whom we see as frightening or evil. It brings us a sense of relief to be able to say, “I am not like them. We have nothing in common.” As if somehow our shared humanity translates into absolutely shared dogmas. The notion that we can be from the same country, have the same ethnicity and claim the same religion, yet maintain completely different ideologies remains a concept difficult for many to grasp. That Anders Behring Breivik could pronounce his ascription to a Christian dogma and yet have a completely different understanding of Christianity from a Southern Baptist in Mississippi should not be shocking. Nor should it mean that for all intents and purposes he was not “Christian.” He believed he was, and in a sense, that is all that really matters. 

Mantle Blogger, Corrine Goldenberg, wrote last week about the film The Power of Nightmares.  In her piece she touched on themes of “otherness” and the strategy of creating an “other” to be feared and fought against. As she mentioned, this has been a crucial aspect of the “war on terror.” It has enabled our government to not only garner the support it needed to instigate this “war” but is now used as a sort of carte blanche in the name of national security. Any person linked to the words “Islam,” “Muslim,” or “Terrorism” is the “absolute other;” guilty until proven innocent and subject to different rules of justice. For many, viewing the attacks in Oslo and Utoya through this lens somehow made it easier to grasp.  

Yet, as was seen this past week, our compulsive need to label and categorize people in order to determine their otherness landed many in trouble. Politicians, pundits and journalists alike jumped on the “It was al-Qaida!” bandwagon, delving into ridiculous diatribes about how this was obviously the work of this pre-defined, evil other. The shock and disbelief when the perpetrator turned out to be a white, Christian, native Norwegian was overshadowed only by the quick and forceful denunciation of this label. From Bill O’Reilly’s claim that “Breivik is not a Christian. That's impossible,” to Fox News’ Lt. Col. Ralph Peters statement that “anybody can claim anything…doesn’t have anything to do with any church I’ve ever attended.” It remains inconceivable to many that these could be the actions of someone like them; someone not other, but similar, familiar.

While the US media continues to argue the definition of "Christian" with many on the right bending over backwards to make Breivik the other, the people of Norway have taken a different path. I was impressed and hopeful as I read the words of Norway’s Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg:

"I think what we have seen is that there is going to be one Norway before and one Norway after July 22. But I hope and also believe that the Norway we will see after will be more open, a more tolerant society than what we had before."

To experience such a tragic event and see it not as a time to be angry and fearful, but a time for tolerance and openness is simply beautiful. We, as Americans, would do well to learn from the Norwegians. It is possible to see in such tragedy an opportunity for peace and tolerance, not fear and revenge. This compulsive desire to create the other only serves as a hindrance to healing. In the end, all we manage to do is alienate ourselves from those who might have proven to be the community of support we so desired.

Norway, Terrorism