The Norwegian Police Security Service have announced that they had received credible threats of terrorism against Norway within the next few days. The Security Service were very non-specific when sharing this information with the general public. They did not give a location, a specific time nor any clue as to who was behind the threat, except from by saying that individuals connected to extreme islamist communities in Syria might be behind it.
This dark cloud of non-specific information now hangs over Norwegian society. For many it brings up memories of the state the country was in during the last days of July three years ago, after the Breivik attacks. Again the end of July gets shaded by armed police and heightened security in the streets of norwegian cities. A close resemblance lies in how the norwegian population now is confused, scared and in lack of reliable information. At least it bears a close resemblance to the first few hours after Breivik's bomb went off in downtown Oslo.
Three years ago people believed the bomb and shooting to be an attack by extremist islamists. Some proceeded by attacking people of minorities in the streets of Oslo, simply for 'looking Muslim'. As soon as it was established that the attack was from within rather than from afar, performed by 'one of us' rather than 'one of them' the attacks ceased. Now on the other hand, when the threat comes from afar, from 'them' rather than 'us', will Norwegian society show it's true colours if an attack actually happens? It's not easy to tell before we're actually there. There is however a possibility we learned something the last time, something that can help carry us through if the threat becomes a reality. We learned that extremists of any kind are a threat to the way in which we live our daily lives. We learned that it doesn't really help to think of 'us' and 'them', that terrorism can come from within as well as from afar and that one bad guy doesn't really define a whole population.
The question does however still remain; was it right of the police to release the very non-specific information about the attack? The potential dangers here are of course widespread panic, running the terrorists errand by spreading fear in the population, potential rises in racial profiling and hate-violence. The police has asked people to proceed with their lives as they normally would, which some of course are unable to as they are terrified by the threat or reminded of previous trauma. The question does present itself; if people are supposed to just proceed as normally why would they need the information about the threat in the first place? It would be naive both to expect people not to take certain precautions and to ask them not to. It speaks of a 'head in the sand'-mentality which in worst case might lead to much more bad than good.
There are however at least two plausible causes for the sharing of very non-specific information. The first one is that the police actually doesn't know anything more than what they have shared, the second is that the police is withholding information from the public and only sharing a limited amount of what they know. There are of course several sides to both these causes. If the police doesn't know anything more than what they have shared they need people to be alert so anything out of the ordinary will be reported. If the police is withholding information there might be good, and security-related reasons for that. To conspiracy theorists it does however look suspicious, and rumour is spreading that it's all a political stunt to showcase a proactive government taking terrorism seriously, some say it might be a rehearsal, and everyone seems to be discussing why Norway would be a target for an islamist attack.
The sharing of information does however clearly show one thing; the police is taking charge. This sends a signal both to the population and to the potential terrorists. For the potential terrorist this might be discouraging. For the general population it is reassuring that the police seem to be picking up on, and taking threats seriously. In 1973 the Norwegian police did the same thing, then the potential terrorists quietly left Norway, they did however perform their acts elsewhere. The reality of the media, of spread of information and misinformation was however very different in '73. With todays 24/7 news coverage in online newspaper, the ease of spreading information or misinformation, panic and conspiracy theories through social media it might be time to rethink how governments and police handle informing the public of threats such as what we're now experiencing here in Norway.