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Tragedy can’t be viewed in isolation

It would be easy to categorize what happened in Norway last week as the actions of a lunatic, but that would miss the point.

Anders Behring Breivik, who confessed to the crimes, may have had some ideas that stray far from the norm, but the amount of planning that went into his horrendous acts says this was not just some mad notion. That concept applies, for instance, to the teenager declared insane by a court in Glasgow earlier this month for stabbing to death a man he thought was a zombie.

No, the man who planted a bomb in Oslo then shot teens at a camp appears to be someone who knew full well what he was doing. And we can expect more instances like this given growing social alienation and the pace of change in society.

As Gwynne Dyer notes in his column this week, journalists are having a field day with this story, coming during a major lull in the news, unless you count the debt-ceiling crisis that’s shining a light on the perhaps irreconcilably dysfunctional U.S. political system. The story is also fodder for all kinds of blogs and message boards. Reading through those comments – far more numerous even than the Breivik’s musings in his 1,500-page compendium – you quickly realize the so-called madman has struck a chord.

As always, conspiracy theories abound. Those on the right of the spectrum inclined to think a certain way see the tragedy as a leftist plot to discredit conservative viewpoints. Their counterparts on the right see the incident as a chance for hawks to swoop in during a time of crisis to do away with democratic processes and civil rights, employing strategies itemized in Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine.

We don’t know what the longer-term implications will be for Norwegian society – let alone Europe and beyond – but so far the country’s prime minister, Jens Stoltenberg, is saying all the right things, avoiding the kind of kneejerk reaction we saw in the U.S. and, to a lesser extend, in the UK following terrorist attacks there. Instead of talking about military and police-state options, he’s talking about enhancing an already enviable democratic and socially-aware society.

Still, there’s a bigger issue here, one already at play in much of Western Europe where shifting demographics and immigration have led to simmering tensions for years. Much of what Breivik wrote about in his manifesto has fuelled the growth of right-wing and nationalist political parties in England, France, Germany and even traditional neutral Switzerland and liberal Holland, among others.

While those on the fringes often make the news, the arguments Breivik makes are not restricted to the extremes. That’s especially true of anti-Islamic sentiments.

As noted in a report from Bloomberg’s Scandinavian bureau, even traditionally liberal Nordic countries have been grappling with the issue, and the revulsion from Breivik’s terrorist acts won’t stop that.

“The rise of globalization and open borders has seen a surge in support for nationalistic movements across the Nordic region, as uncertainty and fear of the unknown grip sections of society in some of the richest countries in Europe. Parties that press for restrictions on immigration or over Islam’s influence have won seats in parliament in Denmark, Norway, Finland and, since September, Sweden,” reads the report.

The growing shift in attitudes, and political activity, comes as more and more foreigners seek access to the Nordic countries’ strong, stable economies and tradition of equality. Of 44 countries surveyed by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees last year, Sweden received the most applications from asylum seekers per head of population.

Norway was fourth, Denmark 10th and Finland 13th.

Even though Norway boasts Europe’s lowest jobless rate and biggest budget surplus, it must now acknowledge a threat of violence more usually associated with less stable societies, Stoltenberg told reporters who prepared the Bloomberg piece.

The bombing and shooting spree could heighten concerns about immigrants, says an expert contacted for the report. Initially, people may move away from the conservative movements, but that’s likely temporary.

“National traumas tend to breed cultural fears, which project onto immigrants or the unknown,” Fredrik Erixon, director of the European Centre for International Political Economy in Brussels is quoted as saying. “The fantastic show of support for open society and the values of democracy will inevitably fade away and be overshadowed by suspicion of the unknown.”

Even now, however, there are those using the anonymity of Internet forums to praise Breivik’s philosophies, though condemnation of his methods is almost universal. What he did was heinous, but he’s not alone in his thinking, which means someone else may go down a similar road. There may be a rush to simply consider this the act of a lone psychopath, but politicians ignore the underlying issues at their peril, and that of their constituents.

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