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[Dominique Moisi] What failed in Norway?

Aug. 8, 2011 - 18:20 By
PARIS ― Japan in March 2011 and Norway in July 2011: any comparison between the madness of nature and the pure madness of man in Norway may sound artificial. Yet, confronted with their respective tragedies, Japan and Norway displayed a very similar combination of qualities and flaws.

In both countries, civil society reacted to the events in a remarkable manner, with a sense of unity, dignity, and reaffirmed national cohesiveness. But, while citizens in both countries have emerged more confident in themselves and in their core values, the security authorities’ performance clearly fell short. As a result, Japanese and Norwegians might emerge more critical ― and justifiably so ― of their respective official bureaucracies. Hail to the people, who had to supplement with their own ingenuity the organizational capacity of those who were in charge of their protection.

One should not, of course, try to take the comparison further. Fukushima will forever stand for the uniqueness of nuclear energy: as long as it works, it is cheaper and cleaner than most alternatives. But, unlike other energy sources, when something goes wrong, the consequences are catastrophic.

The lesson of Norway’s tragedy, by contrast, is that words can kill, and that far-right ideology (perhaps combined with an addiction to violent video games) can lead to terrible consequences. Let’s imagine, then, what could happen if a mad man imbued with an absolute ideology controlled a nuclear weapon.

I was in Norway less than a year ago, and I returned to France confirmed in my admiration for the “Nordic lights” model, especially its Norwegian version. The country gave me the impression of being so civilized that I was utterly convinced that, in a post-Western world, the West would have a lot to learn from the Scandinavian countries.

In particular, what makes the Nordic model so attractive is the modest and honest exercise of government power; near-equality between men and women; a low level of income inequality; and relatively humane treatment of immigrants. How could I have guessed that this last point would fuel the psychopathic hatred of a young Norwegian man?

Psychopaths can emerge anywhere ― even in the most civilized societies. In fact, the combination of free access to weapons in a country like the United States and the lack of a “security culture” in a country like Norway might serve to encourage deviant murderers.

The more civilized and happy a country is, the more extreme its marginalized deviants can be. Even if extremist parties are not all that extreme in their behavior, their ability to channel and contain their most extreme supporters is somewhat limited.

From that standpoint, a moderate political environment is both a benefit and a source of vulnerability. Some people can feel bored to death in a happy and prosperous country. Precisely because nothing threatens them domestically or externally, they obsessively invent imaginary demons.

A happy life generally goes hand-in-hand with a relaxed security culture. I remember my first visit to Oslo, with my then-young children, in the early 1990s. I was happy to walk with them past the Royal Palace. The fact that the king could sometimes be seen carrying his skis into the metro, like an ordinary citizen, was for me a source of admiration.

The French cannot even walk on the sidewalk in front of the Elyse Palace, the seat of France’s president. They have to cross to the other side of the street. They often complain about the excessive presence of police in their democratic, but ever-so-controlled, country.

The pomp and glory that surrounds the exercise of political power in France has nothing to do with the rustic simplicity of a “small but proud people,” as Norway’s prime minister put it after the tragedy. But, in the aftermath of the Norwegian tragedy, many French like the idea, rightly or wrongly, that in France no gathering of hundreds of young people could have taken place without the reassuring presence of well-armed policemen.

But the defense of Norwegian values of liberty, equality, diversity and respect for the other are perfectly compatible with the search for greater security. Open societies, especially if they want to compete with non-democratic countries, must be more muscular: openness requires strength.

The Oslo tragedy coincides, moreover, with the rise of demagogic populism throughout the West, from the tea party movement in the U.S. to far-right parties all over Europe. As I argued in my book “The Geopolitics of Emotion” (which was translated into Norwegian), populism is the direct product of a culture of fear.

It would be facile to link the tragedy in Norway solely to the rise of far-right political forces there, but it would be nave to rule out any connection between the two phenomena. We know all too well what horrors grow from the combination of fear, hatred and de-humanization.

By Dominique Moisi

Dominique Moisi is the author of “The Geopolitics of Emotion.” ― Ed.

(Project Syndicate)