Every year around this time I'm asked to write something. A piece to mark the anniversary of the terrorist attack in Norway in 2011. The day my life almost ended as a terrorist took aim at my head, fired his gun, and missed. I'm usually asked to write to commemorate the events, to speak about what happened, about the meaningless loss of lives, about the pain, the grief, the trauma, about the past. It's been six years now. It's time to use this piece for something more, to speak about the future rather than about the past, about how we informed by the events of the past can build a future less shaped by the violence and hatred that over the years has claimed far too many lives through acts of terrorism across the world.
I've dedicated the last six years working towards that future. I have worked tirelessly to equip our collective toolbox with the knowledge, skills and technology required to win the fight against violent extremism, whatever face it may have. I have worked with policy makers, with technologists, with former extremists and terrorists, with youth and communities of faith. Through the years I've collected stories from across the world; stories of loss, of grief, of sons and daughters that have left their homes misguided by lies, the visions of an utopian dystopia reigned by terror. I've listened to stories of parents who have lost their children in meaningless acts of violence, of families falling apart, of friends and neighbours becoming enemies, of countries searching through the rubble and pain of conflict and war for a vision for the future in the aftermath of terrible violence. It fills me with pain, but among the pain there's also incredible power to be found, inspiration and even optimism.
The optimism might be difficult to see at our darkest hours, in the immediate aftermath of the attacks we've seen over the years, but the glimmers of light are to be found in the resilience of people, of the individuals, and of the communities touched by violence, yet somehow moving on with dignity.
Six years ago I returned from the brink of death. I returned to a family that had heard me almost get killed over the phone. I returned to friends from across the world who had sent messages of love and concern, who had spent the night awake, searching for any sign of life, waiting for my Facebook update at 2:30am, soberly stating "I'm at home and safe". I returned to a community, to the people surrounding me, to people who were ready to support me through the difficult times ahead. It wasn't easy, neither for me, nor for them. But here we are, six years later and I am eternally grateful for their continued support.
My community passed the test. We moved on with dignity. We were scared, we were in pain, but we did not resort to violence, to hatred or vengefulness. We directed our efforts towards coming together, to asking what we could do to make sure nobody else would have to live through what we lived through that day six years ago.
The question is a complex one. For me it started by trying to understand the problem. Anders Behring Breivik (now named Fjotolf Hansen) is on paper not so terribly different from myself. What made him so different, what made him feel that he had to take up arms to 'defend' his sense of self, belonging and identity?
I read his manifesto to try to understand. I went to the trial both to give evidence and to hear Breivik's statements. Then I started looking beyond, looking at others who had been in Breivik's shoes. I met with former extremists from the right-wing like Breivik himself, from the left-wing, from political groups such as the IRA, from islamist groups and other religious groups. I grew through these meetings. My knowledge grew, my understanding both of myself and my community grew, as did my understanding of extremists.
With Breivik, the picture of extremism in my head became more complex and more diverse. We couldn't simply write him off as a foreign threat, as something coming from afar, like we so often do in the cases of islamist attacks, even if the perpetrators grew up in our own neighborhoods as was the case in Paris and Brussels. Here was a terrorist, the only one to successfully blow to pieces the headquarters of a sitting national government, then going on a shooting spree taking 77 lives in total. Most terrorism is small-beans by comparison. With Breivik comes the fact that extremism takes many shapes and forms. That it also comes from within.
If we are to be prepared for whatever comes next, or as I hope, deal with it before it becomes an issue, we have to look beyond the surface of ideology. We have to focus on what characteristics unifies all extremists. We have to look among ourselves, at how these characteristics can get a foothold in our neighborhoods, and at what we, as responsible citizens can do to prevent extremism of any form from taking root.
I was lucky six years ago to come home to a community that supported me, that didn't resort to fear, vengefulness and hatred. A community that did not take pre-emptive measures through violence against those they saw as aligned with the terrorist as so many communities do, especially when the terrorists become easier to see as foreign. We were not driven by the divisive forces of fear and hatred, instead we stuck together, in diversity, across the barriers of international borders, faith, ethnicity and other tactics devised to divide.
You see, my community is not defined by the realm of national borders, or social geography, instead it is international, it exists beyond the physicalities of the world, as a network facilitated by interpersonal connections as well as by technology. It exists in Norway, the UK, Turkey and Sweden, the places I have lived and the places I love. It exists wherever I have traveled and made new connections, and it exists beyond that with clusters and nodes where ever its members have moved and traveled.
In my community I find incredible resilience against violence and those who through terror seek to divide, that resilience is found everywhere. It's found in the coffee shops in the foothills of Galata where life moves on after attacks and attempted coups in Turkey. It's found in the offices and streets of London where friends gathered after the attacks the city has lived through over the last few months, devising plans for what they could do to heal their city. It's found in the cafes, restaurants, nightclubs and concert stages in and around Paris and in the homes and cars that were opened to strangers after the terrible attack in Manchester in May.
The resilience found in my community does however illuminate one of the darker questions of our ever more interconnected world. In a global community; how is it that some still are left out in the cold, staring in a our community with suspicion, fear and hatred in their hearts, wanting nothing more than to destroy, uproot, divide through acts of violence and hatred?
It's a difficult question to ask because it leads to the inevitable; we have to study ourselves, we have to take a look in the mirror and focus on the darker side of our community, at how we left someone on the outside, how we as a community failed in protecting ourselves, our own, by leaving some on the outside, and by extension we have to share in the burden of responsibility.
Anders Behring Breivik (pictured) murdered 69 people in 2011.
The answers to these questions can be painful. It's not as simple as writing every act of terror off as a result of the clash of civilizations, nor as a matter of those struggling with their sense of belonging either being 'with us or against us' as so many politicians have uttered from positions of maintaining control in times of panic. It requires nuance, understanding and humanity where we tend to forget that any exists.
Seeing our own faults can be painful, but also empowering. The execution of this may seem overwhelming to many. It has technological implications in how we build trust and knowledge in an ever more interconnected world, breaking down barriers of filter bubbles and echo chambers throughout which false news and alternative facts may fester. It means we have to take another look at the stories we tell about who we are and our understanding of our place in this world as perpetuated by media and entertainment. For the coming year these two will be high on my own agenda. Bigger, systemic shifts may be required.
In the meantime however I encourage everyone to ask themselves what they can do, and I promise the answer is a lot more than you initially think. 'What can I, an individual without much power of influence do in the big schemes of things, to counter something as big and terrifying as terrorism?' you may ask. The fact of the matter is, however, that we all have the power to change the lives of the people around us, in our families and our neighborhoods. Start small. Even the greatest journey starts with a single step as they say. Perhaps the most powerful action we collectively can take is to support each other individually through difficult times, through a crisis of faith, through pain and trauma. We can lend a hand to those who struggle, to those who have had to leave their homes in fear, to an elderly neighbour who needs someone to talk to over a cup of tea, to a family member who's having problems. Most acts of heroism starts at a small scale, in the home, so be a hero, be like my friends, my family and my community and lend support and inclusivity where needed instead of spreading fear, hate and violence. As a bonus you'll get to be there for the good times. May there be more of those in the years to come.
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