We really should not need someone else's misfortune to remind us about some realities regarding terrorism and terrorist attacks. But reactions to recent incidents within the United States as well as some of the comments in this country about the attack in Norway indicate that we do. Here are some of the most important reminders:
1. Don't jump to quick conclusions about responsibility for an attack, let alone spin out instant analysis based on such conclusions. Such jumping has long been a feature of the immediate aftermath of terrorist incidents, with fingers quickly pointed at whoever are the bogeymen of the day. After the bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993, there were many comments to the effect that Serbs must have done it. Nowadays, of course, Muslim jihadists play that role. The hasty attributions of responsibility are partly a function of the pressure of the press to explain everything quickly, or to get comments from people who purport to be able to explain everything instantly. They also are partly the result of commentators pursing agendas, whether they concern defense budgets or anything else.
2. The threat that gets the most attention is not the only threat. Especially in the decade since 9/11, Americans have mistakenly tended to equate terrorism with the jihadist variety, or even more narrowly with a single jihadist group. This tendency has been taken so far that even ten years after 9/11, the White House can put out a document that it calls a counterterrorism strategy but is really a war on al-Qaeda strategy. The next significant terrorist attack to hit the United States might be a jihadist one, or it might be associated with right-wing ideologies having something in common with the accused terrorist in Norway, or it might be something else entirely. The Norway incident has resurrected the issue of how Rep. Peter King (R-NY) has chosen to focus his current series of hearings of the House Homeland Security Committee exclusively on Muslim extremism. King suggested that his committee should focus on Muslim terrorism and the Judiciary Committee was the better one to look at non-Muslim terrorism. Interesting division of responsibility—I didn't realize committee jurisdictions were split up that way.
3. Individual incidents are not necessarily indicative of larger trends. They might be, but not necessarily, because they depend on the happenstance of luck and of the initiative of very small numbers of individuals. What appears so far to be the case about the attacks in Norway is that they were the work either of Anders Behring Breivik alone or of Breivik aided by a couple of unnamed cells. (Remember: don't jump to conclusions about responsibility; the investigators still have work to do.) The infrequent, sporadic nature of individual attacks makes them very imperfect barometers of larger trends and phenomena, even if they are rooted in such phenomena. Right-wing extremism may very well be on the rise in Europe and pose a threat of more violence, but that would be the case whether or not Breivik existed and whether or not he carried out his attack.
4. Open societies are inherently vulnerable to terrorist attack and ultimately unprotectable. The United States is essentially the same as Norway in this respect, only larger. Security measures can raise the difficulties and lower the odds for terrorists hoping to hit certain especially attractive targets, but alternative targets are innumerable.
5. That a previously unknown individual (possibly with some help) could inflict so many casualties (more even than the 7/7 transit bombings in London) should put into perspective the limits of detection and prevention. It will be interesting to see what kind of finger-pointing ensues in Norway about failures to connect dots or respond to warning signs or whatever. My guess is that the Norwegians will take a more mature and realistic approach to assessing this incident than would Americans, who tend to think that if their government institutions are functioning properly they should be entirely incident-free.
Image by Johhanes Grodem