Mal Fletcher
Oslo Tragedy - Politics, Religion & Personal Evil

‘Something is rotten in the state of Denmark,’ says Marcellus in Hamlet, a play set in that nation's famed Kronborg castle.

This morning, the citizens of Oslo may have awoken wondering where the rot, the source of a terrible tragedy, lies within their nation.

I have visited Norway and its capital many times over the past 20 years, especially as I lived in nearby Copenhagen for a decade. Norway is a nation blessed with stunning scenery and a largely laid-back lifestyle. It is also one of the world's richest nations, enjoying revenues from huge oceanic oil reserves.

Today, however, the nation mourns the deaths of 91 people killed after a downtown bomb attack, followed by a shooting massacre in an island youth camp.

Watching the British news coverage of this event has been illuminating, not least for the fact that many pundits opted first to search for an international Islamist terror link in the tragedy. 

Police have taken into custody the man they believe responsible, a 32-year-old blonde Norwegian with links not to Islamists but to far-right nationalist groups. 

Yet, strangely, even as this became clearer at least one prominent TV news channel ran an onscreen stripe suggesting that he may have visited ‘fundamentalist Christian websites’. 

Still, it seems, the inference is that a terror tragedy like this one must have at least some religious overtone.

In fact, what seems to be emerging – it is still early days – is that the alleged killer’s motivation may have been political rather than religious.

He may well turn out to have visited extremist religious sites, but his choice of bombing target is revealing.

Oslo's government office buildings are not situated in the busiest part of the town. To have seven people die in a bomb blast is devastating enough, but things could have been much worse had the bomber chosen to target an even more populated shopping sector.

The bombing may well not have been about general indiscriminate killing but, in the twisted logic of a deranged person, inflicting damage on specific political ideals or the general political system.

This seems to be supported by the alleged attacker’s choice of youth camp on the island of Utøya, 40km north-west of Oslo.

There he savagely gunned down more than 80 young people, most of them in their teens, at an event sponsored by the ruling Labour party. They had come together because of a shared interest in politics.

The Norwegian Labour Prime Minister was due to appear at the camp today; another minister had visited yesterday.

In some ways terror activity is firmly linked in the public psyche with religious fanaticism, but it is often political zealotry or anti-government sentiment that sparks acts of terror.

Religion is often used by unscrupulous figures as a pretext for garnering support for twisted political ideals. Especially among poor or oppressed groups, where religion offers the only certainty or reassurance people feel they have to hold onto.

But suggesting that religion is almost always at the heart of acts of terror ignores the key role that politics plays. It also denies the positive role religion can play in preventing tragedies and/or in bringing healing after they’ve occurred.

And it ignores an important idea which is fundamental to the world’s largest religious systems, an idea that can help us process (and perhaps even prevent) tragedies.

Not long after moving to Copenhagen from Australia in 1995, my wife and I were bemused by a news story about convicted Danish murderers who’d escaped when given ‘away-days’ from prison.

Having been allowed the privilege of weekends spent at home with their families, several quite high profile killers had absconded. The Danish press and prison authorities seemed puzzled by this turn of events.

Our instant reaction was, ‘Well, what did you expect?’ These were men convicted of crimes of the highest order. Why wouldn't they try to escape at the first opportunity, especially if the state seemed to be giving them a get-out-of-jail-free card?

As outsiders, we later discovered that the institutional thinking which led to this incident is quite common in European societies. We have since learned that at least until relatively recently it has been quite strong within British society – at least, in circles of influence and power.

Crime, it says, is the product of environment. Nurture is more powerful than nature. This was the key tenet behind Tony Blair's now infamous electioneering soundbite, ‘Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime.’ 

Doubtless, crime of any kind always involves some environmental factors. Bad parenting, family breakdown, the wrong friends and access to weapons are all factors that often feature in the lead-up to serious crime.

Political solutions can and do help, particularly if politics creates a social milieu of openness, so that social problems can be discussed and addressed in a collaborative fashion.

But any sane society must also recognize the limits of political solutions, recognizing that the problem of evil is not simply a matter of human culture, but a problem of human nature.

Even a cursory glance at the history books will show that the most hideous of crimes are often committed by people who’ve never been touched by poverty, poor nurturing or oppression.

This is something philosophers and theologians have pointed out for centuries and, indeed, many continue to suggest today that the potential for evil actions lies within all of us. It may be tempered and disciplined by personal character and the tenets of civilised society, but it is still there.

Writing in today's The Times, Professor John Sutherland of University College London discusses the impact of the new breed of Scandinavian crime writers on the great British detective novel.

The proliferation of Scandinavian crime stories in our bestseller lists and on TV listings, he suggests, is evidence of a ‘growing-up moment’. Now, he says, British crime writers may stop pretending that evil is something foreign to civilisation and, instead of ‘taming the tiger’ within, actually confront it.

Swedish writers such as Henning Menkell and Stieg Larsson, he says, have been doing this for quite a while. Menkell has given the world the Wallander novels, a favourite of mine. The main character, Kurt Wallander, could not be described as a religious figure, but he is quite philosophical.

He often ponders how, in a supposedly civilised society, in which liberal ideals were supposed to have wiped out barbarism, individual people can display violence of the most horrific kind.

John Sutherland says, ‘There is one thing [the Scandinavians] believe, in their Calvinistic way, that you can never put right. The old Adam.... Beneath the peace, prosperity, culture and education, is the evil that no welfare state, however benign, can eradicate.’

The professor was addressing detective fiction, not events in Norway. But his words have a resonance here.

Politics alone cannot solve the problem of evil, or acts of evil. The fact is that at its most fundamental level evil is not primarily a societal problem, but an individual one.

Science can play its part in tackling this challenge, particularly through psychiatry and psychology and to some degree sociology. 

But religion, so often cast as the villain of the piece, can also play an important role. Particularly religion which recognizes the latent potential for evil within human nature itself, the need for justice in the face of atrocities and the possibility for regeneration and redemption.

Our thoughts are with the people of Norway who’ve suffered their worst crime since the Second World War. We should also pause to reflect on how thin is the veneer of civilization and how we each need to play a role in guarding its freedoms.

Watch Mal's video on this issue  

Mal Fletcher (@MalFletcher) is the founder and chairman of 2030Plus. He is a respected keynote speaker, social commentator and social futurist, author and broadcaster based in London.

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