Three Ways of Looking at a Terrorist

By Michael Nagler

Please read these words of an American woman living in Norway:


“Our public officials have asked us to put compassion first, to nurture each other, listen to each other, put words to our feelings, to respect our vulnerability, to feel our anger and desperation but not allow hate or angst to take over.  King Harald, Queen Sonja, their son Crown Prince Haakon … all let us see their tears. The King promised that our humanist values would not be shaken.  The Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg said: “We will meet terror and violence with even more democracy, openness and humanity – though not with naivety.”  He quoted a young woman from the Labor Party Youth organization who was present during the attacks, “If one person can show that much hate, imagine how much love we all can show together.”


We cannot fail to be moved by the nobility of the Norwegian people.  I know of individuals who have risen to this kind of maturity — like Eileen Egan who at age 80 was mugged and badly hurt but forgave her attacker and, as she said, “refused to live in fear.” The Amish community responded recently to a rampage like the present one that took the lives of children at their school.  But here we are seeing the courage — and wisdom —of an entire people.


Terrorism, as basically an extreme form of violence, follows the dynamics of violence anywhere: if you fight it with your own violence it gets worse (thought there might be some “successes” in the short run); if you respond to it with nonviolence — and the courage and nobility of the Norwegians today is exactly that (this was the people, remember, who courageously defied Hitler during the Nazi occupation during the famous Norwegian school teachers’ strike) — not only do you keep from falling into the debilitating mindset of fear and anger yourself, history shows that you also tend to inhibit the repetition of such disasters.


This is why in the UK, no stranger to terrorism, they tend, in the words of an English friend of mine, to “play it down (splash and publicity is just what the attackers want) and quietly set about solving the problem.”  Note the assumption that there is in fact a problem — that if someone hates you that much, there might just be a reason.  So this is an approach that, while it does not evoke the incredible generosity of spirit we are seeing in Norway, at least does not descend to the methods of the attackers and has been adopted because it tends to break the cycle of violence.


Then there’s our way.  The United States had a powerful kneejerk reaction to 9/11 which was not based on political realities but was framed as a kind of cataclysmic mythology à la Star Wars, or The Lord of the Rings, or, yes, Harry Potter.  There is an “axis of evil” of mindless terrorists out to get us because “they’re jealous of our freedoms,” and we’re not reacting out of private vengeance (only), we’re saving the world.  After 9/11 President Bush lost no time evoking cowboy mythology with his “wanted dead or alive” rhetoric that similarly demonized and in a way trivialized the presumed mastermind of the evil attack (the recent film Cowboys and Aliens finishes the merger of the two mythologies).

End-time mythological fantasies are not a safe way to think about the real world. Norway will reel from the blow she has felt, but will still be the open country they want; to some extent they will be the stronger because they have discovered the possibility of love in the depths of hate.  The UK has many problems, but terror has not knocked them off their perch, except insofar as they have been swept into the American mythology in Iraq and Afghanistan.  And then there’s us.  We have sacrificed the lives of over four thousand of our own servicemen and women in Iraq alone (a country that had nothing to do with the attacks) and left an estimated 100,000 wounded, many of them yet to be counted as the post traumatic stress of the meaningless brutality comes home.  Over 7,000 coalition troops — more than twice the total who died in 9/11 — and close to two million Iraqis and Afghans have died in the ensuing violence.  Nearly $4 trillion is down the drain in the two theaters.


Looked from another perspective, Anders Breivik completely failed in his mission to start a revolution and choke off the tolerance of Norwegian society.  The various attacks on the UK have had some “success,” without causing any fundamental changes.  But Osama bin Laden succeeded beyond his wildest dreams. He not only devitalized our economy and many of our democratic freedoms but damaged America’s credibility in the world.


It is not too late to restore a good measure of that credibility.  As one peace scholar voiced shortly after the attacks: “terrorism cannot be condoned, but it can be understood,” that is, not turned into an apocalyptic myth that condemns us to endless war and the sacrifice of our freedoms in the name of “security.”  This is not who we are.  As the tenth anniversary of 9/11 comes up, why don’t we defy the terrorists by strengthening, not weakening, our democratic institutions with the principles of nonviolence? What is stopping us, the American people, from rejecting Islamophobia and the police-state mentality into which we fell when we were first reeling from the shock of 9/11?  Eileen Egan refused to live in fear.  Shall we go on refusing to free ourselves from it?  Let us reignite the courage and idealism with which we once inspired the world.





Leave a Reply

2 Comments on "Three Ways of Looking at a Terrorist"

February 27, 2012

Osama didn’t destroy America’s credability…

he merely exposed it’s susceptibility to a non-realistic form of thinking…

the sort of “cowboy vs. aliens” sort of thing in which you shoot first, think later is not too far off from the odd perceptions that people have that are “biblically” minded… regardless of its presence or lack thereof!

(basically, bush had no idea what he was doing and wasn’t a very wise politician and lacked critical thinking skills… and the american public are gullible enough to believe whatever they hear so they just went along with it… like, “who are the bad guys? oh, the Iraqis? ok, kill them!” before even seeing proof. kinda like how they believe “bad people go to hell, good people go to heaven” and heaven is a bit ambiguous in biblical texts and the “hell” people know of is actually taken from “dante’s inferno” and not even from the bible itself… the lake of fire? that’s a lot of logical leaps to make from someone talking about a “lake of fire”… don’t ya think?)’

basically, it’s disastrous because people aren’t EDUCATED on something, yet, they make decisions AS THOUGH THEY WERE. oh, let’s elect bush… because he’s a christian, like me!

even though likely neither them (the voter) nor “he” (bush) have even READ THE MANUAL ON HOW TO BE A CHRISTIAN TO BEGIN WITH. This text is also known as the “holy bible”… it contains some abrahamic deity-based things… and some stories. lots of notes to other countries… very little of it is actually “divine” on the behalf of the bible itself… basically, the bible doesn’t claim to be what people claim that is is… people are just making things up and hope that they are right.

it’s like “hearsay religion” in a sense.

the best part about this, the part that really strikes home with me, is…

if someone is a terrorist like that, and they hate someone SO MUCH… maybe there is a reason?

of course, violence was the wrong way to go about this… but he probably knew no other way! especially with a military background… he was TAUGHT to solve his problems with violence. being someone who once bought a gun to feel safe in his own apartment, yet, never even fired said gun… I realize that violence isn’t for me! but, for some… it’s “the only answer”.

to some people, violence is their only language that they believe is EFFECTIVE. are they accurate? no. but, what it DOES show us is that there was an ISSUE somewhere that wasn’t resolved! we are responsible for each other… even people like this guy! if he had such hatred for others, and we didn’t see that coming, then what does that say about us? it says we are a bit naive! how did he do this for so long without anyone knowing? apparently people aren’t paying attention. PS: get off your phone for a minute and pay attention to the world around you and you might actually learn about people like this. the only way I SEE to REALISTICALLY keep this from happening again is to not make fun of these people, to not call them names, or anything like this. just listen. listen, and educate.

if at some point, someone would have listened to his point of view then presented alternatives, maybe he would have not done this. but he was likely ignored for so long, and his voice went unheard, that he MADE his voice heard… whether we like it, or not!

looks like it worked, eh?
he’s all over the news… probably won’t even go to prison! if so, not for long.

stop treating people that don’t do what you do like “outsiders” or “crazy people” or “untrustworthy” and they might not become the self-fulfilling prophecy that we see here.

call someone crazy for long enough… they might actually prove to you that they are. ignore someone and don’t take them seriously, eventually, they will be heard.

it’s just how people work… either learn to operate within the bounds, or, have things like this KEEP ON HAPPENING. OVER, AND OVER… until you learn that everyone deserves to be listened to and taken seriously… you may see obvious flaws in their logic that may be true… but they may see some in yours, as well. when looking at someone like this, if you become a hypocrite and don’t apply the same scrutiny to yourself as you do him… you promote the creation of more like him. whether you like it, or don’t… reality is what it is. period.

July 31, 2011

Unfortunately, there is some report of the attack in Norway “stirring up debate” on immigration. Problematic, to say the least! The story of reaction to terrorism in the form of the war(s) and the incredibly mortality rates associated reaches deeper, and indeed, into the very heart of problems that are fundamental for nonviolence. While you were referring to the post 9/11 world, of course, the history of the region reveals what might be one of the greatest, most monumental errors and problems for nonviolence as such: the sanctions on Iraq, which may be viewed as reactions to a kind of terrorist threat: the terror of Saddam Hussein’s threat and his aggression on Kuwait, and the subsequent vigilance against his supposed threat of developing nuclear weapons. This lead to the greatest, smartest “bomb” in history, a bomb so smart that it literally wreaked its damage not only with spectacular precision — targeting almost exclusively the most vulnerable in the population — but with the strange capacity to have done its damage while rendering the most of the world entirely forgetful that it even took place. I refer, of course, to the sanctions on Iraq, which killed probably around 1.5 million and which figured so prominently in the reasons given by Osama Bin Laden for his 9/11 attacks that we are forced to recognize his reasons, even if we don’t want to enter into that sort of “dialogue”, such as it is.

This constitutes a problem for nonviolence as such in some very special ways because it shows up the critical matter of arriving at the essence of violence and nonviolence as such. The smartness of the bomb played on the lack of any actual, physical bombs being set off, although weaponry is what backed up and enabled the embargo. But just as critical was that the sanctions could pass themselves off as being somehow “diplomatic” and “an avoidance of violence”, an “avoidance of war”, etc. Such a strange avoidance that actually ended up being the single most lethal thing to take place in the region altogether.

It brings into relief critical features of the problem and work of nonviolence, and shows that it is needful that 1) thought emerge as an independent value, since it is thinking that can accomplish the understanding of essnece and that 2) nonviolence emerge as an independent value and category of understanding, of course.

In addition, the situation of the terrorism you speak of here appears to me to show up a needful category: that of psychology as such, as pertains to terrorists whose fundamental or basic psychological functioning is problematic. Many terrorists, it appears to me, are not psychological healthy. Psychological health as such is emphatically not a panacea for the problem of violence, but likewise the solution to the problem must also include psychological health as a fundamental route for amelioration. The Norwegian terrorist’s personal psychology and functioning should become a question, as it appears that his world-view is at least in part not reducible to its own explicit existential conditions and concerns, but rather appears to relate to issues of his own stages of development, success or lacks thereof in forming adequate relationships, his passage into adulthood and relationships with his friends, establishment of effective love relationships and object relations, and so forth. How this general rubric obtains or is managed should be one of the fundamental issues for thinking in nonviolence. In general, such thinking in nonviolence as it stands tends not to broach the general topic of psychology as such enough.