What appears to be terrorist attacks have targeted Norwegian government buildings. While there is currently no information about who is behind the attacks, the location alone appears to rule out domestic groups (Norway does not have any significant insurgency) and the attacks bear all the stylistic hallmarks of al-Qaeda or an imitation group.
While we wait for more information and the inevitable casualty count, it is worth beginning to consider motive and what it might say about the broader continuing struggle against international religious and political militants. After 9/11, the question was phrased thus: Why do they hate us?
The post-9/11 consensus collapsed with remarkable speed into typical partisan bickering, with many conservatives striking nationalist “with us or against us” poses that simply evaded the question and many progressives blaming the victim, claiming that the United States itself (at least whenever it was under a Republican President) was to blame for whatever happened to it.
Neither self-serving posture can remain coherent if the perpetrator of the Norway attacks turns out to be affiliated with al-Qaeda. The nationalist position assumes that the United States is a special beacon of liberty and is targeted by those who “hate our freedom.” But although Norway is an ally, it is not really central to American strategy and can hardly be called a beacon of anything other than stereotypical Scandinavian mildness. There is no grand battle where America fights “a long twilight struggle” involving Norway. The troops don’t rely on torrfisk.
The blame-the-victim logic similarly does not apply. Norway is not known as a center of power for the Republican Party or of so-called “neo-conservative” (actually a pejorative political term that has no meaning in international relations theory; it’s closest analogue in the non-partisan world is actually Wilsonian liberalism) foreign policy. There is simply no way that anything George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, or Donald Rumsfeld did or said can be attributed to Norway. Norway is also not linked to hyperbolic allegations of an international American “empire.” So that meme too must now be set aside.
What Norway does represent alongside the United States is modernity linked to a neoliberal international order. Al-Qaeda and its affiliates should be viewed as neither caricatures of anti-Americanism nor romanticized rebels against malevolent “neo-con” hegemony. Rather, al-Qaeda and its affiliates should be viewed as a group of thugs who want to impose upon the world a 7th-Century religious ideology linked to a rejection of any and all global trade, diversity, and intercultural tolerance. Norway gets targeted for the same reasons as Spain, France, or Britain — because it is a tolerant society that embraces religious freedom and a degree of ethnic diversity that is intolerable to the religious/political purism of some Islamic (and other) zealots.
And since that is the real reason that they hate “us,” the “us” should be large enough to include us all without regard to our petty partisan differences. Politics may no longer stop at the water’s edge, but it can and should be stopped at the edge of a Manichean struggle against something that both conservatives and progressives can and should recognize as incompatible with each of their respective fundamental values.