The attacks in Norway weren't an attack on us all

We should not turn Norway's shattered buildings and shrouded bodies into a party political broadcast

Horror, yes. Shock, yes. But also relief. Relief that we had no need for caveats. Calls for historic perspective or dialogue, or remembrance of the fallen innocents on the other side. The massacre in Norway could be condemned unequivocally.

Anders Behring Breivik is the right's Angel of Death. His act of barbarity perpetrated with brutal political clarity. A Labour prime minister, Labour government and a Labour youth camp his targets.

But as the slaughter was unfolding we still hadn't encountered that cold, blue eyed stare. Initial reports indicated an attack in response to Norway's interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan. Labour MP Tom Harris, responding, predicted on Twitter that "we'll still have the apologists for terrorism saying it was caused by "foreign policy" or by "disrespect to the Prophet."

Harris was wrong about the terrorists' identity and motives. But the apologists rushed forward nontheless. "You have a better chance of a wet floor killing you than an Islamist", tweeted Dr Eoin Clarke, founder of GEER, the new Gender, Environment, Equality and Race think-tank. "Hamas have a mandate better than the Tories", was a follow up intervention. That's the same Hamas that launched a rocket attack on Israeli schoolchildren in April. I tried to find Dr Clarke's condemnation of that attack, but couldn't.

On Utoya people were scrambling for their lives. Across the UK elements of the left were scrambling for their Twitter feeds. "Solidarity", was a favoured response to cold blooded murder. In reply to the initial bombing, author Owen Jones took the opportunity to point out that "working class Norwegians have just been slaughtered". Of the dead and dying of the Norwegian middle and upper classes there was no word. The BBC was condemned for describing Utoya island as a "summer camp". The attack was a "political crime". Not to report it as such was to "diminish" the young Labour members targeted.

By morning, the death toll had risen to 90. And empathy turned to appropriation. We had witnessed a "political act". It would be "madness not to draw political conclusions considering politics". Political points "should be made". The victims had been "killed for their politics by a political activist". It was important to defend "people's right to use the language of solidarity when a right-wing extremist targeted young socialists".

I was in the hall at Labour conference when the relative of one of the victims of the Dunblane massacre spoke of her campaign to introduce a total ban on handguns. It was silent, save for the sound of grown men and women crying. There was no political connection. Or motive to the crime. We cried anyway.

That night I was telephoned by a friend of mine who has no interest in politics. That moment had been shown on the television news. "I didn't think your lot were like that", he said.

He didn't mean he thought we were heartless monsters. Just that we had too often let our politics obscure our humanity.

It's important to put some of the responses to the Norwegian attacks in perspective. Many of those responding on Twitter are themselves still young. And you cannot fully appreciate the horror of a child's murder until you have children of your own.

But there is something wrong when someone's initial reaction to the scenes from Oslo is to reach for an expression of political solidarity, rather than one of basic sympathy. And we have been here before. The shooter of Democratic Senator Gabrielle Giffords and nineteen bystanders hadn't even been charged before some on the left were rushing to place the blame squarely at the door of Sarah Palin and the Tea Party.

This isn't just a matter of poor taste. There are massive issues raised by the events in Norway. If we feel a need to tackle the radicalization of Muslim youth then we clearly have to examine the influences that set Oslo's Timothy McVeigh on his own murderous rampage. If we wish to focus on the threats posed by domestic terrorism then we clearly have to ensure our efforts and resources are focused across all our communities. And we need to examine which "preachers of hate" had Anders Behring Breivik's ear.

But none of this will be achieved by turning Norway's shattered buildings and shrouded bodies into a party political broadcast. The dignity of Jens Stoltenberg and his pledge to fight back with "more democracy and more humanity" stands on its own. It doesn't require cheap comparisons with David Cameron or George W Bush.

Nor will it be addressed by retreating into moral relativism. Far right terrorists; barbarians. Palestinian terrorists; freedom fighters. Irish Republican and Loyalist terrorists; folk heroes. Al-Qaeda terrorists; by-products of US neo-conservatism.

The attacks in Norway weren't an attack on us all. They were an attack on 80 children who went on a camping trip and never came home. Let us mourn for them. But please, let's not grasp for the tragedy and the horror, and try to claim it as our own.

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

Meet the remarkable British woman imprisoned for fighting against Isis

The treatment of Silhan Özçelik shows how confused British policy towards the Middle East has become. 

Last week, a British court sentenced a woman to prison for attempting to join fighters in the Middle East. Silhan Özçelik, an 18-year-old from Highbury, London was sentenced to 21 months for her part in “preparing terrorist acts” under the Terrorism Act 2006. The judge called her a “stupid, feckless and deeply dishonest young woman”.  What all of this misses out is the most extraordinary fact: that Özçelik was not convicted for going to fight for the Islamic State, but for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party – better known as the PKK, one of the only effective and consistent opponents of Isis since the war began.

Volunteering to fight in foreign wars – so long as they are long ago enough – is a celebrated tradition in Britain. In the late 1930s, while the Spanish Republic battled on against a fascist coup led by General Franco, tens of thousands of volunteers from all over the world went to fight for the International Brigades, including 2,500 from the UK. They included future celebrities such as writer George Orwell and actor James Robertson Justice, and commemorative plaques and memorials can now be seen all over the country

Like the International Brigade volunteers, Özçelik allegedly volunteered to fight for an embattled state facing military defeat at the hands of a far-right insurgency. The combat units she might have joined have been the subject of moving portraits in the Guardian and even praise on Fox News. The PKK is a secular socialist organisation, with a streak of libertarianism and its own feminist movements. But because of its military opposition to the often brutal Turkish treatment of the Kurds, the western powers list the PKK as a terrorist organisation; and would-be heroes like Silhan Özçelik are detained as criminals by the British state.

On one level, what Özçelik’s conviction represents is a change in how the state relates to ordinary citizens who fight. In 1936, the rise of fascism was something on our doorstep, which was opposed most fervently not by official western governments but by ordinary folk, dangerous far left subversives and free spirited writers who sailed to Spain – often in spite of their own governments. In today’s wars in the Middle East, the state is absolutely determined to maintain its monopoly on the right to sanction violence.

What Orwell and other volunteers understood was that while western governments might promote values like liberty and deplore the rise of tyranny, they were also duplicitous and unreliable when it came to prioritising the defeat of fascism over the narrow interests of nation and profit. Then as now, western governments were  deeply uneasy about the idea of ordinary people taking up arms and intervening in global affairs, or deciding – by force – who governs them. If the Terrorism Act 2006 had applied in 1936, Orwell would surely have been arrested at Dover and sent to prison.

More pressingly for the current situation, the persecution of the PKK should make you think twice about the motivations and outcomes for military intervention in Syria. Cameron is on a march to war, and, following the Paris attacks, much of the political establishment is now lining up to support him.

At the same time, our court system is imprisoning and persecuting young women who try to take up arms against Isis. It is doing so at the behest not of our own national security, which has never been threatened by the PKK, but that of Turkey. Turkey’s military is actively targeting Kurdish forces, and has recently stepped up these attacks. There is a wealth of evidence, not least its behaviour during the recent siege of Kobane, to suggest that Turkey – Britain’s only formal NATO ally in the region – is tacitly collaborating with Isis in an attempt to defeat both Assad and the Kurds.

As the government rushes to war in Syria, much of the media attention will focus on Jeremy Corbyn’s awkward task of holding his anti-war line while persuading his party and Shadow Cabinet not to split over the issue. Others will focus, rightly, on the complexity of the situation in the region and the question of who western air-strikes are really there to support: is it Assad, the murderous dictator whose regime has itself been linked to the rise of Isis; Turkey, which is seemingly focussed entirely on defeating Assad and the Kurds; or the soup of organisations – including the Al-Qaeda franchise in Syria – which constitute the anti-regime rebels?

But Özçelik’s conviction should also raise a more fundamental concern: that the contradictions and complications that we are so used to associating with the Middle East lie at the heart of British and western policy as well. If the British state persecutes, rather than supports, the few secular and progressive organisations in the region who are fighting Isis, whose interests is it really serving? And if we don’t trust those interests, how much trust can we really place in it to act on our behalf in Syria?

You can sign a petition calling for Silhan Özçelik’s release here, and a petition calling for the decriminalisation of the PKK here.