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By Barry Rubin

One of the most sensitive aspects of the very sensitive subject of the murderous terrorist attack in Norway by a right-wing gunman is this irony: The youth political camp he attacked was at the time engaged in what was essentially (though the campers didn’t see it that way, no doubt) a pro-terrorist program.

The camp, run by Norway’s left-wing party, was lobbying for breaking the blockade of the terrorist Hamas regime in the Gaza Strip and for immediate recognition of a Palestinian state without that entity needing do anything that would prevent it from being a terrorist base against Israel. They were backing and justifying forces that had committed terrorism against Israelis and killing thousands of people like themselves.

Even to mention this irony is dangerous since it might be taken to imply that the victims “had it coming.” The victims never deserve to be murdered by terrorists, even any victims who think that other victims of terrorists “had it coming.” This is in no way a justification of that horrendous terrorist act. It’s the exact opposite: a vital but forgotten lesson arising from it that can and should save lives in future.

Call it the Oslo Syndrome.

The Stockholm Syndrome is named after an incident in which hostages taken by a terrorist group then quickly became supporters of that group. A combination of intimidation (persuade these people that we’re friends or they’ll kill us); human psychology (get to know someone and hear their sad—whether or not true—story and sympathy arises); and ideology (having—or thinking you have—common ideas and interests with the terrorist movement).

Then there was the Oslo Process, the 1993-2000 effort to make peace between Israel and the Palestinians. In retrospect, it can be read as an attempt to solve a conflict by offering a great deal to those who instead rejected the offers, believing they could total victory through a strategy that included terrorism as a major component. Many in the West—especially Norway–think it only failed because not enough was offered and exculpating the terrorist side and strategy.

The Oslo Syndrome encompasses all of these things but goes a step further, for the most dangerous things you can do about terrorism is to make it appear politically successful and hence a great thing to do. For terrorism is not an ideology or a movement but merely a strategy: to murder noncombatants systematically and deliberately for political ends in order to get your enemy to give up and your own side to cheer and join up.

If you do this, will others, including the victims, be so terrorized as to give you whatever you want? Will they ignore the moral implications and support you nonetheless? Can you successfully make the argument that you are so oppressed as to justify terrorism, as the ambassador of Norway implied is true against Israel after the killings in the summer camp? Is it possible to engage in terrorism yet convince much of the world that your victims are the real terrorists?

According to Maariv, the ambassador said:

“We Norwegians view the occupation as the reason for terror against Israel. Many Norwegians still see the occupation as the reason for attacks against Israel. Whoever thinks this way, will not change his mind as a result of the attack in Oslo.”

And if you can answer any of these questions with a “yes” then terrorism may be for you. Of course, not every worldview or movement would use it but for those who do it is a very practical issue whether using terrorism is likely to result in being reviled and killed yourself or being celebrated internationally and receiving large amounts of money.

The Oslo Syndrome can be defined the opposite of the Stockholm Syndrome. Instead of being a target of terrorism and then changing views to support the terrorists’ side, it means—individually, as part of a movement, or as an entire country—supporting the terrorists’ side then being victims of terrorism.

Here are four cases of terrorism being perceived as failures and itself dying out:

  • The idea that terrorism works originated with Gracchus Babeuf, a French revolutionary journalist who coined the word in 1793. A few months later, his comrade, Pierre-Paul Royer-Collard, called terrorism, “The only way to arouse the people and force them to save themselves,” exactly what today’s terrorists think.Babeuf was executed, though, and that idea became out of fashion for decades.
  • Late nineteenth, early twentieth century leftist or nationalist terrorism engaging in bombings and murders in Europe and a bit in North America.
  • Latin American terrorism of the 1960s and 1970s failing to achieve revolution and being repressed.
  • European terrorism of the 1970s and 1980s mobilizing little sympathy.

In contrast, Middle Eastern terrorism (Palestinian, radical nationalist, Islamist) enjoyed much local support and political success even in the West. Shortly after the September 11 attacks, an aide to Usama bin Ladin, Abu Ubeid al-Qurashi, recalled how Palestinian terrorism inspired the assault on America: millions of people around the world heard Palestinian claims and demands; “thousands of young Palestinians” joined the PLO.

Yasir Arafat spent decades as a terrorist, was applauded at the UN—after a speech in which he threatened more murder—then spent decades more as a terrorist, afterward becoming a virtual head of state and winning the Nobel Peace Prize. Why should others not dream that the road to victory is paved with the corpses of deliberately murdered civilians?

If terrorist murders by Hamas and Islamists did not stop well-intentioned future leaders of Norway from enthusiastically considering them heroic underdogs, a local evil man could think his act of terrorism would gain sympathy and change Europe’s politics. After all, it has already changed the Middle East and even been sanctified by Western media, intellectuals, and governments.

When Norway’s ambassador to Israel distinguishes between “bad” terrorism in Norway and “understandable” terrorism against Israelis that opens the door to a man in Norway who thinks his country is “occupied” by leftists and Muslims?

In this sense, the most important thing about the terrorist in Norway is not that he is right-wing or anti-Islam, The most important thing is that he believed terrorism would work on behalf of his cause. After all, if he had held all of the same beliefs but didn’t think deliberate murder was a good strategy, nobody would be dead from his actions.

Of course, he was mentally unbalanced but did have a material basis for his imaginings. What he didn’t understand is that many Europeans will accept terrorism against Israelis or even Americans; very few will applaud terrorism against fellow Europeans.

Nevertheless, many people gave him the idea that terrorism would change minds, gain support, and bring victory. They weren’t those whose blogs he quoted a few times in a 1500-page manifesto and who explicitly rejected violence. They merely gave him programmatic ideas. It was the successful terrorists and their Western enablers who gave him the strategy he thought would work and implemented.

Oh, and one more thing. A young survivor of the terrorist attack at the camp in Norway explained:

“Some of my friends tried to stop [the gunman] by talking to him. Many people thought that it was a test … comparing it to how it is to live in Gaza. So many people went to him and tried to talk to him, but they were shot immediately.”

He’s right but in a very different manner from what he thought. It is more comparable to how it is to live in Israel being targeted by Palestinian or Lebanese terrorists who won’t be talked into sparing your life. But it is people like the victims in Norway who want Israelis “to stop” the gunmen “by talking” to them.


Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center, editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal, and Middle East editor and a featured columnist at PajamasMedia http://pajamasmedia.com/barryrubin/. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). The website of the GLORIA Center is http://www.gloria-center.org. His articles published originally in places other than PajamasMedia can be found at http://www.rubinreports.blogspot.com

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