Last month’s horrific terrorist attacks in Norway were perpetrated by a militant Christian extremist who abhors the threat, as he sees it, that multiculturalism and liberalism constitute for his country and its religious majority. At least that appears to have been the motivation for Anders Behring Breivik’s murderous assault on a summer camp where children and adolescents were vacationing.
And while it is easy enough to characterize Breivik as a madman, he also represents a growing type of madman in human existence. Breivik’s manifesto (which he published on his blog just before he carried out his attacks) expresses the views of a devout fundamentalist whose understanding of his religion is at odds with the basic tenets of that religion and whose actions are contrary to those prescribed by his faith.
In this regard, he is no different than Osama bin Laden, albeit bin Laden was a leader of a movement while Breivik is just a sole individual, more akin to Timothy McVeigh in that respect. But all three, bin Laden, McVeigh, and now Breivik, used terror to express their deeply held beliefs. And those beliefs, such as they are, generated the intolerance that, in their minds, justified their acts of terror.
And while Breivik’s attacks killed fewer than McVeigh’s and far fewer than the 9/11 attacks, the impact on his nation was far greater, relatively speaking, than either of the other two. To clarify that point, consider that Norway is a country of 5 million, one-sixtieth the population of the United States. In other words, viewing the two countries’ populations, a death toll of 76 in a population of 5 million would have the same impact as a death toll of 4,560 in a country with a population of 300 million (that of the U.S.).
But numbers don’t really mean much when a society is as devastated as Norway now has been. Its security, or more to the point, its sense of security, has been violated, and, just as was the case in America after McVeigh’s bomb exploded in Oklahoma City, and even more so after 9/11, the country will never be the same. It has lost its collective innocence, that sense that “it can’t happen here.”
And, on a larger scale, Breivik’s actions should have the same impact in every country, large or small. Indeed, if it can happen in Norway, a country as seemingly remote in terms of its geography, as isolated in terms of its politics, and as homogeneous in terms of its ethnicity and religious identity as a country can be, it can most certainly happen anywhere.
And so, apart from the grief that all civilized peoples must feel and the sympathy and empathy that all feeling human beings most assuredly extend to those who have suffered loss in this horrific tragedy, what can we learn?
What strikes me about this latest episode of terrorism is that it clearly establishes that acts of this kind are hardly confined to any one religion or ideology. Islam has been condemned by many in the West for the actions of Al Qaeda, as if the religion espouses terrorism or countenances the killing of innocent civilians. But if that logic is valid, then mustn’t Christianity be similarly condemned when those with extreme views of that religion promulgate acts of terrorism and kill innocent civilians?
In the end, religious extremism denigrates the value of religion in a society, and, without intending to claim an understanding of the underlying tenets of any religion, I submit that the extremism that results from the most rigidly fundamentalist dogma causes the intolerance that then fosters the terrorist acts.
Every religion is susceptible of a wide spectrum of beliefs. Christianity certainly is a prime example of this fact, with the major split between Catholics and Protestants only the tip of the iceberg in terms of the width of that spectrum. In many respects, Episcopalians are as different from Baptists as they are from Catholics, maybe even more so. And, with over 100 recognized religions all labeled as Protestant, the span of beliefs under the banner of Christianity is broad indeed.
And no one, so far as I am given to understand, who strongly adheres to the beliefs of any of those many versions of Christianity, considers that other Christians are as correct as they are in their understandings of the teachings of Christ. Muslims are similarly divided regarding the teachings of Mohammed, as are Jews regarding the Torah, and even Buddhists regarding the degree of reverence they accord the Dalai Lama.
And, just as every religion has its own dogma and all dogmas are subject to interpretation (e.g., whether it should be construed literally or metaphorically, whether it should be followed rigidly or flexibly), so do they all promote a sense of unity within their tents and disunity with all the other tents.
The result in civilized society is a casual acceptance of the differences in beliefs and practices. Some celebrate the Sabbath on Saturday, some on Sunday. Some fast for various periods of the calendar, some do not. Some attend worship services regularly, some only on specified occasions. No one is offended by the religious beliefs of a neighbor in civilized society, because everyone recognizes the many vagaries inherent in religious beliefs in the first place. (How, after all, can we really be certain of anything when it comes to the wholly unknowable?)
But all of those intellectual niceties are irrelevant to religious fanatics. Those individuals are intolerant of the beliefs of others. They know only that theirs is the only path to righteousness, and that those espousing other paths (or ignoring the “correct” path entirely) are heathens at best, and God’s enemies at worst.
And when those views fester in the mind of a demented soul, they result in the horrors of terrorist attacks such as Anders Breivik wrought in Norway last month.
Intolerance is the root cause of the acts of terrorism that flow from the religious fanaticism of our age. And no war on terrorism is going to eliminate it.