Anders Behring Breivik

When I wrote last week about the two terrorist attacks that had taken place in Norway, I was also making the point that these were not especially significant in terms of the Norwegian relationship with Sri Lanka. I was indeed worried that some Sri Lankans might see this as an opportunity to vent their resentment at Norway for the encouragement it was thought to have extended to terrorists, and I wanted to make it clear that I felt this would be inappropriate. In fact, though there have been one or two regrettable pronouncements, by and large the reaction has been suitably sympathetic.

Obviously there was some sort of link, in that Sri Lanka had suffered appallingly for terrorism for a long time, and Norway had been involved in trying to help us to overcome this, though as I have noted, their involvement was not always of the wisest. That however was in line with the attitude of some Sri Lankans too, so we should not blame them. On the other hand, a few recent pronouncements, after the LTTE was destroyed in Sri Lanka, seemed unnecessarily provocative, and I believe Erik Solheim in particular spoke out of turn some months back. However he too has been more sensible recently, while the Norwegian Foreign Ministry has by and large behaved circumspectly, in a manner I had thought indicated its comparative professionalism, as opposed to the ambitious Mr Solheim.

Utøya Island - Norway

So, despite the occasional continuing dissonant voice from Norway, balanced by the recent arrest of one of the more extreme characters trying to revive the LTTE, I thought it necessary to preserve a distinction between our own victimization by terrorists and what Norway suffered last week. But I was shocked out of this position when I saw an aerial view of Utøya Island, where the main tragedy happened. It is shaped exactly like Sri Lanka, even down to a small peninsula at the top and an indentation on the East Coast which looks like Trincomalee Harbour.

And then I read, in the article to which the picture was attached, the last quotation, of a Norwegian girl who said, ‘It is unbelievable that a Norwegian guy could do this to his own country.’ That phrase struck me then as symptomatic of a whole mindset about terrorism, which needs to be adjusted, if we are to get rid of terrorism worldwide, or at least reduce its impact.

First is the assumption that terrorists are alien, not like us, and they harm others, not people like themselves. This is obviously a part of the truth, because terrorism thrives on othering, on hardening distinctions between those who act and those against whom they act. This has been encouraged by the dichotomizing the West engages in as a matter of course, in terms of its own dialectics, and I suspect we would all be much better off if we had a more oriental view of our relations, in which we thought in circles rather than straight lines, in terms of overlapping inclusivities rather than oppositional compartments.

But, more crucially, what the othering of terrorism leads to is more and more rationalization of hostilities one feels. Thus we begin with emphasizing distinctions between races and religions and those who speak different languages. The distinction being deep enough, we decide that the gap cannot be bridged, and therefore we try to entrench structures to enforce separation. However, if in the process we find people who do not share our world view, we then think of reasons why they too should be treated as different, put beyond the pale as it were.

I was made acutely conscious of this when I read an account in TamilNet of the meeting our High Commission in London had organized for me with the diaspora. There were well over a hundred people there, and I think a third of them or so were Tamil, which is a tribute to the manner in which our Acting High Commissioner and his team have kept links going. The meeting I felt was a good one, because most people there were anxious to move forward, but that did not prevent tough questions, from Sinhalese as well as Tamils.

Erik Solheim in particular spoke out of turn some months back.

But for TamilNet the group had consisted only of chauvinistic Sinhalese and Tamil traitors. They assumed the latter were all representatives of the EPDP. This type of approach explains how the LTTE ended up killing more Tamils than Muslims or Sinhalese, culminating in the horrors of the No Fire Zone, where they forcibly conscripted Tamils and used them in vulnerable positions, forced them to act as human shields, fired at the army from amongst them to attract return fire, fired on them to claim the army was responsible, and killed those running away, claiming – according to the US State Department Report, that they asked ‘So you want to run away to the Army do you?’ and then opened fire.

This mindset, of alienating from oneself whatever one wants to harm, is corrosive, and can lead to greater and greater hostility to the world at large. Unfortunately, until it hits at something we ourselves recognize as innocent victims, we tend to think of terrorism as somehow rational. So when it occurs in our countries we think the terrorists must be alien, when it occurs elsewhere, we try to be objective about it and assume there must be good reason for such violence. We even tend to valorize those who engage in such violence, provided it does not hit us at home. Of course not many of us are as mad as Gordon Weiss, who twice highlights what he terms ‘suicidal bravery, and suggests suicide attackers provided twofold value in not only destroying their targets but also displaying ‘extraordinary courage’. But we had the phenomenon for instance of youthful members of the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission talking of the Tigers as freedom fighters, and we had so-called aid workers wanting to stay on with the Tigers instead of raising their voices against the use of civilians as human shields.

This seems a far cry from the young woman quoted, or the other who said, ‘it is so disturbing to think that it was one of us’. But I think it is precisely this compartmentalization, which had contributed to a failure of empathy when others elsewhere were victims of terrorism, that both motivates and excuses terrorism. I can only hope then that this tragedy will make Norway too more sympathetic to the sufferings over a much longer period of a much larger island shaped like Utøya; and will make Norwegian and other politicians celebrate our triumph over terror and the appalling subterfuges terrorists engaged in to try to forestall their eradication. Most importantly, they must learn to refrain from encouragement to former terrorists who have still now acknowledged the horrors their advocacy gave rise to, and the destruction their money wrought.

Daily News 28 July 2011